Murder on 9 Mile Hill.
From November, 1968
“Master Detective” Magazine
Mrs. Woodfield of 6644 Brookmont Terrace helped a stranger in trouble. Her reward was death.
CAN A MAN convincingly reenact a murder he didn’t commit—adding details even the investigating officers didn’t know?
That was the question that faced a jury of Tennesseans after Albert Merritt Jr., accused slayer of an attractive Nashville housewife, re-canted his confession and claimed he was forced to “play a role” before police cameras.
He didn’t deny taking part in the reenactment, and he didn’t deny signing the typed confession, but he claimed he did so after being misled and placed under duress.
Now, on July 23, 1968, as the jurors evaluated testimony and evidence submitted during an eight-day trial, Merritt’s fate depended on whether they believed him or the witnesses who had testified for the State of Tennessee.
The chain of events that brought the slightly-built defendant to trial began on the afternoon of November 30. 1967. in an exclusive residential section of Nashville. Tennessee known as Nine-Mile Hill.
Brookmont Terrace, which winds up and over Nine-Mile Hill, is lined with expensive homes, spacious lawns and towering trees.
At 2:30 that afternoon, Mrs. Lillian Sloan. a maid in the Webber Parrish home on Brookmont Terrace, heard running footsteps across the front porch, followed by a thud at the front door as the doorbell began pealing urgently.
Mrs. Sloan opened the door, found a next-door neighbor, Mrs. Merlyn J. Woodfield, leaning on the door facing. Mrs. Woodfield immediately slumped to the floor, and the maid saw that her blouse was mottled with blood.
“Did someone hit you, hurt you?” Mrs. Sloan asked.
The wounded woman tried to answer, but the only words the maid
could understand were, “Lisa, Lisa, tell Lisa!” Mrs. Sloan knew that Lisa, Mrs. Woodfield’s daughter, was at school.
Quickly the maid and her employer’s sister wrapped the gasping Mrs. Woodfield in a sheet, helped her into the family automobile and raced across Nashville to St. Thomas Hospital.
Their race against time was in vain. Mrs. Woodfield died moments after reaching the hospital’s emergency room. Examining physicians said she had died of stab wounds, one in the stomach, and two knife thrusts in the chest which pierced her heart.
Now the maid was on the witness stand. The man charged with Mrs. Woodfield’s slaying sat calmly at the defense table. And Special Prosecutor James F. Neal was asking questions about the events of November 30th,
“Did you see anyone besides Mrs. Woodfield that afternoon?”
“I saw a man go out on the street from her home,” said Mrs. Sloan.
“Did he have anything in his hand?”
“What was it?”
“I couldn’t tell more or Iess what it was, but it looked like a shovel or rake.” “Could you identify that man?”
“He was too far away to recognize.”
Mrs. Sloan then testified that “fifteen or twenty, maybe thirty minutes later,” Mrs. Woodfield stumbled up on the porch, mortally wounded, and rang the door bell.
When Mrs. Sloan left the witness stand, District Attorney General Thomas Shriver attempted to introduce photographs of Mrs. Woodfield’s body, showing the stab wounds. All three defense attorneys, Dan Garfinkle, WIlliam Wilson and Gary Gober were on their feet simultaneously objecting to this move.
It was not the first clash between the opposing attorneys, and it was not to be the last. Judge John L. Draper listened to the impassioned arguments, then ruled that the jurors could not view the pictures.
The first clash between prosecutors and defense counselors had come, at the very beginning of the trial, over the jury selection process. It hinged on the Supreme Court ruling in the Witherspoon verses State of Illinois case which held that a juror could not be dismissed “only because he had conscientious moral or religious scruples against the death penalty.”
The defense attorneys objected to Prosecutor Shriver asking veniremen about their attitudes toward capital punishment. Shriver contended that unless the jurors agreed to “at least consider” the penalty prescribed by law, the State of Tennessee would be denied a fair trial.
Judge Draper ruled that the prosecution could examine jurors by using the word “consider” instead of the word “impose” in connection with the death penalty. The selection process ground on into the third day before a jury suitable to both sides was chosen.
Selection of the last juror seated touched off a buzz of conversation among the spectators. It was the first time in the memory of Nashville courthouse observers that such a thing had happened.
When police Sergeant Frank Hancock walked into the courtroom, wearing his uniform and service revolver, spectators assumed that he was on duty as a court officer. Actually, he had been summoned as a prospective juror and had stopped in expecting to be excused.
Before walking into the courthouse, Hancock radioed the police dispatcher that he would “only be out of the squad car a few minutes.” As it turned out, he was out of the squad car for a week because, surprisingly enough, both the prosecution and the defense quickly accepted him as a juror.
Prosecutor Shriver then suggested he be removed front the jury panel because the defense might use his presence to claim an error in appealing the case. After Defense Attorney Garfinkle told the court the defense had no intention of raising such a claim, Judge Draper ruled that the 39-year-old officer could serve. Hancock took off his pistol and uniform blouse and took a seat in the jury box.
Through introduction of testimony from Mrs. Sloan, Dr. T. E. Simpkins, the medical examiner, and officers taking part in the initial investigation, the prosecution established the fact that Mrs. Woodfield had died of stab wounds inflicted on her in her own home. Then Prosecutors Neal and Shriver began calling witnesses whose testimony was aimed at placing the defendant at the scene of the crime.
One of these was Will White, father-in-law of Albert Merritt Jr., who testified that he reported the defendant to police as the driver of a stolen car, found bogged in the mud near the Woodfield home; the car had been linked to the slaying before an arrest was made.
Merritt, wearing a yellow sport shirt and brown slacks, sat calmly between his attorneys as Prosecutor Shriver drew from the father-in-law testimony about the red convertible he had driven to Nashville from Chicago—where it was reported stolen—two weeks before the housewife was slain.
“The car had been parked in my yard every night.” White said.
“Did he come home with or without the car the night of the murder?”
“He came in without it. At first he told me it was over at his father’s house. Later, when it had been on television, he told me he had left it on the hill where the lady was killed.”
Mr. White said Merritt told him the car got stuck in the mud, that he went to the Woodfield home to borrow a shovel to try to dig it out, and then when he returned the shovel he did not go into the house but left the tool outside.
“Have you ever seen Albert Merritt Jr. with a knife?”
“Yes. sir. It was a kind of switchblade . . . had a blade three-and-a half to four inches long.”
The only cross-examination by defense advocate Garfinkle was to ask White when he saw the knife. White replied that it was some ten months before the murder.