The Telltale Corpse

Ed Whittaker, Dade's leading criminalist, finds a lively story in every dead body

Merry Pease's wound, according to Whittaker, was life-threatening, not an alibi wound. "She spent two weeks in intensive care on a respirator at the University of Virginia hospital. Merry Pease no more shot her husband than I did," Whittaker says, shaking his head disdainfully. "So I agreed to take the case."

Wise, Virginia, is a small coal-mining town in the southwestern part of the state, home to only a few thousand people. Merry lived there in a trailer with her husband Dennis and her two young children from a previous marriage. Dennis was an engineer in charge of a shift at the local coal mine.

"The husband had been complaining to his buddies at work about problems with his marriage," Whittaker recounts. "He'd get off from work and be home around 8:00 a.m, and he'd sit around and start drinking. One day he tried to suffocate Merry with a pillow, but she fought him off. She could do so because she was about five feet eight and 160 pounds, just about his size. But she didn't bring charges. You don't do that in a little community like Wise. Her attitude was he just got a little carried away.

"Then one day he told his closest buddy at work, 'Things have come to a head -- today's the day.' He went home and began drinking. Around noon Merry saw him in the driveway, working on the car with the hood up. Then early in the afternoon he tries the pillow game on her again, and this time he's pretty serious because the pillow's ripped up and feathers go everywhere."

Merry was able to get away from her husband, who retreated to the bedroom and shut the door. "Sometime later she goes out to pick up the kids from school," Whittaker continues. "She tries and tries, but the car won't start, and she remembers that she saw her husband fiddling with it earlier. He's immobilized her. Later, it turns out, he also pulled the wire out of the phone.

"She went into the trailer and said to her husband, 'Dennis, the car won't start. I have to go get the kids now.' After that her recollection of the events that followed became murky and confused. But it's always difficult to try to remember things in the heat of emotion."

As Whittaker reviewed the evidence, he was able to reconstruct the events that took place in the trailer: Dennis opened the bedroom door and Merry saw a .357 Magnum swinging toward her. "She instinctively grabbed the barrel as he shot her," he says. "I don't think she ever let go of the gun. She was able to push it down a few inches to miss the heart, and that probably saved her life. She was his size, a strong woman. Her heart was pumping, and he was drunk. They struggled from the bedroom across the kitchen to the living-room entrance."

Merry then ran out of the trailer, according to Whittaker, and down to the roadway to try to flag down passing vehicles. Nobody would stop. "She ran over to the trailer home of her neighbors. She was screaming, 'My husband shot me! My husband shot me!'

"By this time she was a real mess, with blood and gunpowder all over herself," Whittaker goes on. "The neighbors gave her a rag and she wiped her face and hands. At this point one neighbor noticed that she had a dark smudge on the heel of her right hand. Merry tried to wipe it off with a wet rag but it wouldn't come off. It was a burn, and she got it because the heel of her hand was against the cylinder of the gun when the shot was fired."

Whittaker believes her husband was watching her from the bedroom window. "He gets mad standing there and rips the curtains and venetian blinds out of the window and throws them across the bed. He then walks into the kitchen and shoots himself near his right nipple. The bullet goes between the ribs, hits a lung, and exits out his back."

But Dennis didn't die then, Whittaker maintains. He wandered through the house, dripping blood, and finally entered the living room, where he shot himself again, this time through the heart, fracturing a rib in the process. He bled to death on the floor, says the criminalist. But the prosecutor charged that Merry had shot her husband first in the bed -- even though there was no bullet hole in the bed, and no blood on the bed. He also charged that Merry shot her husband a second time in the living room, killing him.

Whittaker testified that the extensive trail of blood drops and spatters, along with 144 death-scene photographs and two videotapes re-creating the events, conclusively proved that Dennis shot and tried to kill his wife, who deflected the shot with her hand. The prosecution's theory made no sense, he argued.

But for Merry Pease, things went from bad to worse. A jury found her guilty of second-degree murder and she was sent to the county jail to await sentencing. For eleven months she languished in a cell, waiting for J. Robert Stump, the judge in the case, to summon her back to court.

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