Murder trial for Va. Beach man accused of injecting wife with cyanide begins

Posted at 8:55 AM, Jun 19, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-22 17:30:43-04

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Nearly a year and half after his arrest, Joseph Merlino’s trial is set to begins in Virginia Beach.

Joseph Merlino

Merlino was arrested in February 2017 after police say he injected his estranged wife, Ellie Tran, with cyanide on Valentine's Day, ultimately killing her.

Merlino is pleading not guilty to the murder charges he faces. In jail last week, Merlino told News 3 he is innocent but would not elaborate further on the case.

Merlino has been on a hunger strike in the Virginia Beach City Jail in April 16.

Day one

The trial had a slow start. It took the entire first day for a jury to be seated. Some of the concerns jurors had were with the extensive media coverage of the case, the violent death of Tran and the fact that the trial is expected to last several days.

Before jury selection began, Merlino told the judge he was not satisfied with how his attorney's handled his case. The defense asked for a continuance but the judge ultimately denied the request.

Day two

On day two of the trial the prosecution showed surveillance video of the attack from Tran's Virginia Beach home. In the video you can see Tran park in the driveway, as she walks to her front door someone jumps out of the bushes and knocks her to the ground before running away.

According to the prosecution, Merlino is the man in the surveillance video. They say he was armed with a syringe filled with cyanide.

The prosecution's first witness was Tran's mother, Oanh Thi Le. On the stand she had to listen to the 9-1-1 call her daughter made moments after being attacked and had to watch video of the incident. She became so emotional at one point, she had to be taken out of the courtroom.

Day three

On day three of Merlino's trial, a detective with the Virginia Beach Police Department took the stand. The Commonwealth says he is a key witness, they asked News 3 to not identify the detective because he is undercover, but say he is an expert in computers.

On the stand, the detective revealed searches that were stored on Joseph Merlino's laptop. Some of those searches had to do with cyanide, examples of the searches are below:

“How many milligrams of cyanide will kill you?"

“What if cyanide gets in the bloodstream?"

“What if cyanide gets injected?"

According to the detective, Merlino made searches about cyanide in late January.

A former Italian restaurant owner also took the stand on the third day of the trial. She claims to have witnessed Merlino taking a package from her business in late January.

The prosecution claims the package he took was from an Etsy shop owner from New Hampshire. The owner of the Etsy shop also took the stand and explained that Merlino ordered a hypodermic needle from her business in late January. She was told to ship the needle to the same Virginia Beach restaurant where Merlino took the package.

An FBI code breaker and Special Agent also took the stand on Thursday.

The code breaker, Jeanie Anderson, spoke about letters that were seized from Virginia Beach Jail staff written by Merlino. Anderson was given the letters and decoded the messages. On the stand she testified that Merlino was writing to his girlfriend and family members and asking them to fabricate evidence and an alibi for him.

Special Agent Wendell Cosenza with the FBI testified about cell phone towers and activity to Merlino's phone in the days before and after the attack on Tran. Special Agent Cosenza says Merlino's cell phone "pinged" off of cell towers near Victoria, Virginia on February 13th and February 15th. He says there was no outgoing cell activity from his cell phone on February 14th.

The defense says Merlino is innocent in the death of Ellie Tran. They claim at the time of the attack he was in Victoria, Virginia, with his family.

Day four

The Commonwealth finished calling their witnesses with a doctor from UVA. He testified to the affects of cyanide and how it can easily be turned from a solid to a liquid.

After the Commonwealth rested, the defense began calling their witnesses. The most notable witnesses were Alexander Armstrong, Merlino's half-brother, and then Merlino took the stand himself.

Armstrong told the court he was with Merlino the night Tran was killed. He says Merlino came up to visit him in Victoria, Virginia, and hit a deer on his way. According to Armstrong, Merlino stayed in the area for days but didn't get his car fixed by a mechanic. Armstrong says the night Tran was killed, Merlino's car overheated and the two of them had to get antifreeze for the car and get it back to his home.

After Armstrong's testimony, Merlino took the stand. When questioned by the defense, Merlino was calm and directly answered his lawyer's questions. At one point he even became emotional. Tears could be seen forming in his eyes when he read some of the letters he wrote to his girlfriend, who lives in China, from jail.

Merlino told the court he had no involvement in Tran's death.  He told the court about how he hit a deer on his way to Victoria, Virginia, and was basically stranded there for days. When asked by the defense if he killed Tran, he said no. When asked by the defense if he made any searches for cyanide on his computer, he said no.

Merlino's calm demeanor changed the moment the prosecutor began their cross examination. There were several heated exchanges between the prosecutor and Merlino. The Commonwealth poked holes in Merlino's testimony, questioning how anyone else could have made the searches on his laptop about cyanide. They also went through a series of Merlino's encoded letters from jail, saying that what he said in those writings showed he was responsible and trying to fabricate evidence and an alibi.

Before lunch on Friday, the defense rested their case.

A jury could begin deliberating Merlino's fate as early as Friday afternoon.

News 3 will be in the courtroom for the entirety of the trial. We will update this story as more information becomes available.

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