Men­tal ill­ness won’t keep driver out of prison

The Columbus Dispatch - - Metro&state - By John Futty @john­futty

Ev­ery­one agreed that Daniel P. Merz was driv­ing reck­lessly when he caused a crash on New Year’s Eve that killed one per­son and se­ri­ously in­jured an­other at a Colum­bus in­ter­sec­tion near Up­per Ar­ling­ton.

The ques­tion was whether Merz’s se­vere men­tal ill­ness should be seen as a mit­i­gat­ing fac­tor.

On Thurs­day, a Franklin County judge con­cluded that Merz should be held ac­count­able for his ac­tions and sen­tenced him to three years in prison, fol­lowed by five years of pro­ba­tion. He also im­posed a $10,000 fine and sus­pended Merz’s driver’s li­cense for life.

Merz, 34, of the North­west Side, had pleaded guilty in Au­gust to ag­gra­vated ve­hic­u­lar homi­cide in the death of Bran­don J. Sega, 25, and ve­hic­u­lar as­sault for in­juries to Ja­son Lon­ne­mann, 24.

Com­mon Pleas Judge Guy Reece an­nounced his sen­tence at the end of an hour-long hear­ing dur­ing which Sega’s fa­ther, two of his friends and Lon­ne­mann eu­lo­gized Sega and asked for the max­i­mum sen­tence of six years.

“Mr. Merz was driv­ing reck­lessly, care­lessly and with a com­plete dis­re­gard for the safety of him­self and es­pe­cially the safety of the in­no­cent peo­ple around him,” Robert J. Sega told the judge. “And this was not the first time.”

Merz has a record of traf­fic of­fenses that in­cludes more than a half-dozen con­vic­tions for speed­ing and one for driv­ing while in­tox­i­cated, As­sis­tant Pros­e­cu­tor Wil­liam Wal­ton said.

The “black box” in Merz’s Toy­ota Corolla showed that he was driv­ing 78 mph on north­bound River­side Drive when he ran a red light at Not­ting­ham Road and col­lided with a Toy­ota Camry driven by Lon­ne­mann at about 9:45 p.m. Dec. 31, 2015. Sega was a back­seat pas­sen­ger in the Camry.

Wal­ton said Merz told emer­gency-room staff af­ter the crash that he had been “joyrid­ing.”

Lon­ne­mann dis­cussed his long, tor­tur­ous re­cov­ery from ex­ten­sive in­juries, in­clud­ing a trau­matic brain in­jury, but said “the most pain I’ve ever felt” oc­curred sev­eral days later when he was sta­ble enough to be told of his close friend’s death.

Sega was a grad­u­ate of Up­per Ar­ling­ton High School and Ohio Wes­leyan Univer­sity, had played baseball at both schools and worked as a graphic de­signer at a He­bron com­pany.

When Merz was given an op­por­tu­nity to speak, he apol­o­gized to Sega’s fam­ily and to Lon­ne­mann.

“I’m in­cred­i­bly sorry about your loss, and I think about it ev­ery day and I hope one day we can come to amends over it,” he said. “I just feel re­ally bad about it.”

Two psy­chol­o­gists sep­a­rately eval­u­ated Merz and agreed that he suf­fers from a men­tal ill­ness that causes hal­lu­ci­na­tions and delu­sions, but they couldn’t con­clude that he was un­able to un­der­stand right from wrong at the time of the crash.

That meant he didn’t have grounds for a not-guilty-byrea­son-of-in­san­ity de­fense.

Merz was di­ag­nosed as “bipo­lar with psy­chotic fea­tures” and had stopped tak­ing his med­i­ca­tion be­fore the crash be­cause of dif­fi­cul­ties in ad­just­ing to changes in dosage, de­fense at­tor­ney Jon Saia said.

He ar­gued for pro­ba­tion, say­ing that “in­car­cer­at­ing the men­tally ill I don’t think ben­e­fits any­one.”


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