After leaving Andy Banks’ body in a rural field with five shots to his back, Justin Merritt drove Banks’ SUV to his hometown of Danville, Virginia, a prosecutor said Tuesday.
Merritt drove around, went back to his house, saw a friend, saw his family and slept in his bed, according to Wake County Assistant District Attorney Patrick Latour.
Meanwhile, Banks’ friends and family were getting worried. Banks had left to meet a man around 2 p.m. on Sept. 12, 2020, to sell him a silver 2011 Range Rover. But he never returned.
Banks had first met Merritt in the parking lot of the former K&W Cafeteria in Cameron Village, now known as the Village District, less than a week earlier, on a Tuesday in 2020. The two men had planned to complete the SUV’s sale on the following Saturday at the same place, according to statements in court.
It’s unclear what transpired between the two men’s meeting and Banks’ eventual death.
On Tuesday, Merritt sat next to his attorney as his trial began. He is charged with murder, robbery, larceny of a motor vehicle and possession of a firearm by a felon.
SUV found hidden with bullets, blood
Over the few days following Banks’ death, police used information from family and friends, along with cell phone usage and other data, to identify Merritt as the man Banks was supposed to meet.
After Banks’ disappearance, police reached out to Danville law enforcement, who located Banks’ Range Rover on Sept. 13, 2020. It was hidden behind a church under a cover near Merritt’s home, according to testimony.
In the SUV, police found blood on the front seat, bullet holes and spent shell casings, according to testimony. Someone had tried to clean up the blood with cleaning supplies that were also found in the SUV.
Merritt initially said he didn’t know where Banks was, according to police testimony. When police searched his home, they found the gun used in the killing under a couch cushion. Police also found a couple of spent shell casings and a bloody rag, which was also connected to the killing.
Five gun shots to the back
Five days after Banks disappeared, law enforcement found his body in a field in rural Virginia. Banks had been shot at least five times in the back. The shots were fired so close to Banks they singed the raincoat he was wearing, Latour said.
Merritt’s attorney, Alexis Strombotne, said during opening arguments that her client admits to shooting Banks but came to Raleigh that day planning to purchase the SUV.
Merritt, a father of three boys, worked as a welder who did industrial maintenance. He reached out to Banks using his real name, email address and phone number, Strombotne said.
When Merritt went to pick up the SUV, he recruited his brother-in-law to drive him to Raleigh and his niece ended up coming along, Strombotne added.
Was it first-degree murder?
Strombotne appeared to set the stage in her opening statements to argue the killing wasn’t first-degree murder, which carries an automatic sentence of life in prison.
Strombotne asked the jury to consider carefully each of the required elements of the murder charge, including premeditation and deliberation or whether the killing occurred during a violent crime, such as robbery.
Under North Carolina law, first-degree murder includes premeditation and deliberation, but case law has shown that such requisites can take only a matter of seconds, said longtime defense attorney Daniel Meier.
“If I shoot you in the leg and then I shoot you again and hit you in the head, they can say the second shot is premeditation,” Meier said.
Jurors can also find someone guilty of first-degree murder if the evidence convinces them that a killing happened during a dangerous felony, such as a robbery.
Frankly, Meier said, many times attorneys are arguing in trials not for innocence but for a lesser crime, such as second-degree murder or another related offense.
Strombotne said that Merritt found Banks and his SUV through the website CarGurus, which notifies customers when a vehicle is available that meets certain criteria. The Range Rover had 90,000 miles and was valued at about $15,000, according to statements in court.
Initial witnesses in the trial included Banks’ friends, who described him as friendly and outgoing. Banks enjoyed restoring cars, driving them for a while and then selling them, his friends said.
Merritt’s brother-in-law, John Wilkins III, also testified about riding down to Raleigh to pick up the SUV on Sept. 12, 2020.
Wilkins said Merritt drove his mother’s SUV to Raleigh. Wilkins then-11-year-old daughter tagged along, he said. On the ride to Raleigh, Merritt drove, Wilkins tried to nap, and his daughter watched TikToks on her father’s phone, Wilkins said.
They met Banks in the K&W parking lot. Banks moved to the passenger side of the SUV and Merritt took the car for another test drive, Wilkins said.
Wilkins and his daughter stayed in the parking lot during the 30-minute test drive, he testified. Then Merritt pulled up in front of him in the Range Rover and said it was time to head home.
Wilkins said he didn’t notice anyone else sitting in the SUV, but said the windows were tinted and he didn’t look closely.
The two vehicles traveled together until Wilkins decided to eat in Yanceyville. Merritt indicated he planned to make a stop and that Wilkins should go ahead, Wilkins testified.
Testimony is scheduled to continue Wednesday morning.