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Murder case advances to grand jury

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The brothers charged with the Jan. 15 murders of William “Skip” Brown and Sherri Mendenhall appeared at a preliminary hearing at the Xenia Municipal Court on Thursday. Dustin Merrick is being charged with aggravated murder while Bret Merrick is charged with aggravated burglary and accessory to aggravated murder. 

The court found on Thursday there was sufficient probable cause that the brothers committed the murders. The court increased their bond from $750,000 each to $5 million each.

The preliminary hearing was one of a few steps prescribed by Ohio law before a felony charge goes to a jury trial. According to Greene County Prosecutor Stephen Haller in a phone interview on Monday, at a preliminary hearing, the prosecutor must prove that there is probable cause to charge the defendants. Based on that ruling, the court will determine whether or not the defendants will remain in custody until their appearance before a grand jury. 

The grand jury will in turn issue indictments if a majority of those jurors find there is probable cause to formally charge the defendants with a felony offense. Ohio law requires a grand jury indictment to prosecute felony charges.

The burden of proof required at a preliminary hearing is lower than in a jury trial, Haller said, in which defendants have to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. 

The prosecution called witnesses to present evidence against the Merricks. Greene County Sherriff’s Detective Kelly Edwards testified at the preliminary hearing, as did an analyst from the BCI’s cyber crimes division. 

Based on the evidence, the court ruled that the case would proceed to the grand jury phase. The prosecutor’s office has 60 days to bring the case before a grand jury. 

While murder and burglary are felonies by themselves, there are several aggravating circumstances that elevate the seriousness of the charges, Haller said. The fact that the murders were committed during a robbery, that they were committed with “prior calculation and design” and that a witness was killed as a result means that the charges bring with them the possibility of capital punishment.

While homicides are not uncommon in Greene County, Haller said that this is the first case he has prosecuted since 1996 that could bring the death penalty.

Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer said in a phone interview on Monday that the sheriff’s department is still following investigative leads and the BCI crime lab is still processing evidence from the scene.

“We want to make sure we’ve got everything factually correct,” Fischer said. “It’s not going to be over tomorrow. It’s going to be a long case.”

The brothers remain in custody in the Greene County Jail.

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