By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Whittaker had done his best and received his fee. But this was a case he couldn't turn his back on. So while Pease's new attorney, Gerald Gray, pursued an appeal, Whittaker went back to work, this time for free. He wrote Judge Stump and asked for permission to make a presentation of the evidence before sentencing. Stump ignored him.
The judge finally scheduled Pease's sentencing for the last week of July 1995. "I was aware that in Virginia the governor appoints the judges," Whittaker says today. "So a few days before Merry's sentencing, I took out a quarter-page ad in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where I was sure the governor would see or hear of it." The ad, which cost Whittaker nearly $4000 of his own money, took the form of an open letter to the governor and attorney general. In it he laid out the facts and evidence in the case. Pointing out that Pease was due for sentencing in a few days, he wrote that she had "committed no crime.... Her crazed, drunk, raging husband fired a bullet nearly through the center of her body and then killed himself. Dennis committed the only crime and the people of Virginia are putting Merry in jail!" He asked the governor to suspend Pease's sentencing until evidence in the case could be studied by Virginia's top forensic scientists.
On July 27, 1995, Stump sentenced Pease to fifteen years in the state penitentiary (a 23-year sentence with ten years suspended, plus a mandatory two years for commission of a felony while using a firearm). Then the judge did something highly unusual: He let Pease, now a convicted murderer, go free on bond while her new attorney prepared an appeal.
Did Whittaker's letter to the governor help Pease walk out of jail? He thinks so. "I'll bet you $50,000 some kind of communication took place between the capital and this little town of Wise, Virginia," Whittaker says with a wink and a smile.
While Pease was home with her children, her attorney was able to get her conviction reversed on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct. She was later indicted again for murder, but eventually the charge was dropped. Pease is convinced that Ed Whittaker played an important role in her fight for justice. "I think without Ed's help I might be in prison now, I really do," she says today. "Ed did all that work for free because he believed in me. There are so many innocent people in jail right now who don't have someone working for them. If they don't have an advocate on the outside, they stay there."
Last year Whittaker was instrumental in helping get felony charges dropped against Edson Mejia, a Miami man in his late twenties. It was a supremely goofy case, according to Whittaker, with Mejia shot in the head but arrested by Miami police for attempted murder.
In late September 1996, according to Whittaker, the 28-year-old Mejia was trying to break up with his girlfriend, Karen Matamoros, age 20. He met with her one last time, then drove her to her home near NE 24th Street and Fourth Avenue in Miami. Only those two people can say with certainty what happened after the meeting, but Mejia very nearly bought a bullet in the brain.
"It was the final kiss-off," says Whittaker. "She was highly pissed. She was in the act of getting out of the passenger's door. She had the door open, and she probably had her head and body completely outside of the car. She reached down and, with her right hand, took a Raven .25 caliber semiautomatic out of her purse. She then spun around to fire."
Mejia saw the gun and quickly dived straight across the car and hit or grabbed Matamoros's hand, Whittaker says. "I'm sure the weapon discharged from outside the vehicle," he explains, "because there were no powder patterns or gunshot residue inside." The bullet tore through the passenger-side sun visor and lodged in the mirror on the opposite side of the visor."
"Mejia was able to grab the gun before, during, or immediately after the first shot went off," Whittaker says. "It may be that he only hit her hand and knocked the gun upward. She then fires again and gets a second shot in above his left eyebrow." By this time, according to Whittaker, Mejia had control of the gun and Matamoros fled. "Mejia throws the gun on the floorboard," Whittaker explains, "scoots back into the driver's seat, and drives away. He drove a block or two when he saw a police car. He's pumping blood, so they got him right to Jackson Memorial."
When police found and questioned Matamoros, she gave them conflicting versions of the fight, according to both Whittaker and an interoffice memo written by the prosecutor handling the case, Assistant State Attorney Robert de la Fuente. The police initially arrested Matamoros but later released her and then arrested Mejia.
The Miami Herald reported that Mejia had been charged with attempted murder for allegedly trying to shoot Matamoros, and that he had accidentally shot himself in the head. The Herald news brief also stated that it was Matamoros who was breaking up with Mejia, rather than the other way around, as Mejia claimed. James Gailey, Mejia's attorney, asked Whittaker to look at the evidence.