May 19, 2009 Published in the September 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

I enjoy each issue of Portland Monthly. It’s a quality publication, one that Portland has lacked for years. A couple of constructive thoughts: I really have a hard time with “The Best of” concept—city, doctors, dentists, schools, the list goes on. You see, I try not to use the word “best” in my vocabulary. It rates with “always” and “never,” two other words I use with caution.

My wife is a doctor, and along with many others, she is an awesome one. The need to identify “the best,” though, eliminates everybody else. So please keep up the good work, Portland Monthly. Can you just do away with “The Best of”?

Southeast Portland

Your recent article “The Rose Defense” (June 2008), by Bart Blasengame, begs a response. I represented Jordan Merrell at trial. Your piece does your readers, as well as my office, a disservice by misstating facts and omitting information.

Blasengame notes that Merrell’s mother, Carol Van Strum, wrote letters “begging” me to visit Merrell at the Lane County Jail, creating the false implication that insufficient attention was paid to Merrell and his family.

In fact, I visited Merrell 33 times at the jail, not including meetings we had during his court appearances. Additionally, I drove to Deadwood, Oregon, twice to meet with Ms. Van Strum at her residence. I spoke with her 52 times by telephone, spoke with his father 14 times by telephone, and had 18 office conferences with Van Strum and/or her husband. The foregoing facts are ascertainable and could have been established through viewing public billing records.

On April 30, 2008, Merrell pleaded guilty to the crime of murder, and admitted and agreed to the following facts: “I personally hit Mr. Bonci in the head with the cane with such force that the cane broke. That blow to the head caused Mr. Bonci’s death.” Your writer not only omits the foregoing information, but concludes his article with Merrell’s written statement to his mother, “I assure you I didn’t do what I confessed … but it’s time to move on.”

Michael Rose wins praise in your article for persuading the attorney general’s office that there was an alibi defense that could have been presented at trial and that it constituted ineffective assistance of counsel not to present that defense. Your writer omits the information that in April, Merrell also agreed to this statement: “Further, I acknowledge that I did not have an alibi defense; rather it was created for me during my post-conviction proceedings.”

The foregoing admission should have been of interest to your readers as well as your writer, and included in his article. Among other things, it raises significant questions that remain to be addressed.


The editor responds:
Invoices that were originally obtained by Michael Rose’s investigator ascertain that John Halpern billed the state for a total of 84.6 hours. These records show that he spent much of this time reading the letters of Merrell’s mother, Carol Van Strum, and talking with Jordan and his family about the case.

However, the number of hours billed does not constitute an indisputable record of what actually occurred. To this day, Merrell and his mother deny that Halpern spent that amount of time with them.

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Further, our article does in fact recount that, as part of the April plea deal that reduced his jail sentence, Merrell pleaded guilty to Edward Bonci’s murder.

The central concern of the article, however, was not whether Merrell confessed to the crime or even whether he committed it—but whether a man who was 15 at the time of the murder and facing a 25-year mandatory sentence in the wake of Measure 11 had received an adequate defense.

On that count, the State of Oregon conceded he had not. In the December 13, 2007, court document that overturned Merrell’s murder conviction, the attorney general’s office agreed there were numerous problems with Halpern’s defense, citing that, among other things, Halpern “was aware of, but failed to interview, witnesses who would have testified to facts that could have provided [Merrell] with a possible alibi defense”; that he “failed to investigate or interview pertinent witnesses, including juvenile law practitioners, who may have provided testimony that [Merrell’s] confession could have been false”; and that he “failed to adequately prepare for trial.”

I wanted to thank Anna Hirsh for the beautifully written piece in last month’s issue (“Portland Polemic,” August 2008). I am one of those Portlanders who grew up in the city and never really left—and I have often wondered what life is like “out there.”

As soon as I graduated from the University of Oregon, I had big plans to move to Los Angeles, with intentions of carving a place for myself among the creative folk down south. Unable to find a good fit in L.A. (or anyone who took an Oregonian seriously), I bemoaned accepting a job at an ad agency in Portland. My family remembers my bitter complaints about the rainy weather, the colorful characters I encountered on my commute, and my resentment over never leaving the city where I attended elementary school.

It took some time, but I finally got tired of my own complaints and resolved to do something about it. I made a point to discover or try something new in Portland every week.

Today, I am happy and content to be here. I may have grown up here when Portland was uncool, but now I’ve been given the privilege of witnessing the city’s transformation into a unique and exciting place, albeit a damp one.

Northwest Portland

I love letters like the one you published from Robert Boulette (“Letters,” July 2008), which asked, “Who in their right mind would eat a half-pound burger?” Most of the population would, but apparently he knows what is best.

We might occasionally indulge in a big burger. So what? The last time I checked, this is America, and we are free to do and eat what we want. What a condescending, pious jerk.

Southwest Portland

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