If things had worked out differently, Jessica Mann might have been one of my eighth graders this year at Joplin East Middle School.
From all accounts, it would have been a pleasant experience. Those who knew Jessica at the time of her death on July 30, 2004, when she was only seven, spoke of how bright and full of life she had been.
That life was taken away in one horrifying moment when a drunk driver ran off Highway 86 going at a high rate of speed and ran into Jessica and her grandfather, Jim Dodson, killing both of them. Those deaths were the driving force behind a bill sponsored by Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, during the 2005 legislative session that toughened the penalties on drunk drivers. That law, however, did not apply to the man who killed Jessica and her grandfather.
Instead of charging Edward Meerwald of Noel with second-degree murder, the Newton County prosecuting attorney's office was forced to charge him with two counts of involuntary manslaughter. After a change of venue to McDonald County, Meerwald pleaded guilty March 8, 2005, and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Three years ago this week in this space I wrote about Edward Meerwald:
There is nothing our judicial system can do to make things any easier for those have who lost loved ones to drunk drivers.
The one thing they can, and should, expect, is that once those drunk drivers are convicted that they should serve their sentences... and not have appeals financed by their own tax money.
Apparently, something about life at the Jefferson City Correctional Center did not sit well with Meerwald. Despite the fact that Meerwald knowingly and willingly entered a guilty plea, less than three months later, on June 6, Meerwald filed a notice of appeal and was given permission to proceed as a pauper, meaning that our tax money was used to hire a public defender to appeal the sentence of a man who made up his own mind not to go to trial.
Anne Wells of Neosho was appointed to handle the case, which has languished in McDonald County Circuit Court for more than two years. Eventually, Ms. Wells filed a motion to withdraw as Meerwald's attorney, and the motion was granted.
Earlier this month, Meerwald asked to have another public defender appointed, and naturally, that motion was approved. Though court records do not indicate to whom the case has been assigned, a notation was made on case.net Monday that the state public defender's office will once again represent Meerwald.
The idea that the accused is entitled to a competent defense is deeply ingrained in our judicial system. We are justifiably proud that we protect the rights of everyone whether or not they have the money to hire a lawyer.
However, the line needs to be drawn when a man has already admitted to the crime and has been sentenced. Why should the family of Jim Dodson and Jessica Mann have to pay one more time?
Three years have passed since I wrote those words, and it took most of that time for Edward Meerwald’s case to finally come before the judge.
A hearing was held March 26 and it must have slipped under the media’s radar since I do not remember reading anything about it until I looked up the case last week.
The judge rejected Meerwald’s bid for freedom and Meerwald remains behind bars. That decision only delays the inevitable. At some point, Edward Meerwald will be a free man, able to resume his life- an opportunity he never gave Jessica Mann and Jim Dodson.