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Jury chooses death for killer

Published March 20, 2004

LARGO - This time, Troy Merck Jr. kept his mouth shut.

In Merck's third trial, jurors deliberated for just more than two hours Friday before recommending to a Pinellas-Pasco circuit court judge that Merck, 32, be executed for the 1991 killing of a man outside a Pinellas Park bar.

The first time a jury brought back a death recommendation in 1993, Merck started singing a song as bailiffs led him to jail. Another time, he gave the victim's family a sarcastic thumbs-up.

On Friday, jurors again recommended, with a 9-to-3 vote, that Judge Brandt Downey sentence Merck to death rather than life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years. The final decision is Downey's, but by law the judge must give the jury recommendation great weight.

No sentencing date is set.

Merck's two previous death sentences were overturned by the Florida Supreme Court, which affirmed Merck's conviction. The high court ordered the selection of new juries to recommend a sentence after procedural errors.

On Oct. 11, 1991, James A. Newton and several friends went to the City Lites nightclub near Pinellas Park to celebrate his 25th birthday and the birth of his second child. When Newton's party left the club, they found Merck, then 19, leaning on one of their cars.

They asked him to move. Merck tried to pick a fight. Newton, a Little League coach, refused.

So Merck attacked Newton with a hunting knife, stabbing him in the back and chest. Yelling "Happy birthday!" Merck lifted Newton's head by the hair and slashed at his face, then twisted the knife in his neck. Defense attorney Michael Schwartzberg said Merck was an alcoholic and that his drinking and tortured childhood could be used as a reason for a life sentence.

But prosecutors Richard Ripplinger and Brian Daniels told jurors that alcohol was just a poor excuse for Merck's brutality.

James Newton "was a man just trying to stand by his friend," Ripplinger told jurors.

[Last modified March 20, 2004, 01:20:34]

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