Neighbors discovered the corpse of church volunteer Thomas Clark inside his Liberty City apartment with his hands bound behind his back with a red bathrobe tie, his feet bound with a brown braided belt. A sheet wrapped his head.
His accused killer has a novel defense: Clark killed himself in February 2005, by accident, in a sexual fetish known as “autoerotic asphyxiation.”
Prosecutors call it murder.
“Make no mistake, the person responsible for his murder sits before you today,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Chris Angell said, pointing to accused killer Michael Merchison.
Countered defense attorney Scott Sakin: “ Thomas Clark killed Thomas Clark.”
The peculiar case, befitting of a television crime drama, unfolded for jurors Tuesday in the opening of trial for Merchison, accused of second-degree murder and burglary with assault or battery.
Autoerotic asphyxiation is when someone cuts off his or her own oxygen supply, which defense attorneys say heightens the senses during sexual gratification. The practice can lead to accidental deaths.
This story starts with Clark, 60, an Alabama-born appliance delivery truck driver. One of nine brothers and six sisters, Clark was the father of three and a devout Methodist.
With two brothers, Clark sung in the choir at the Ebenezer United Methodist Church and drove the church van. For over 20 years, Clark had lived in the same first-floor apartment, at 620 NW 13th Ave, where he also served as a maintenance man.
Clark was last seen Feb. 25, 2005 sweeping the apartment grounds. Hours later, after 1 a.m., a neighbor saw Clark’s car pull in to the complex. He and another man walked across the street to a corner market.
Video surveillance captured the pair. Clark wore a gold chain. The other man – prosecutors Angell and Rachel Walters say it was Merchison – sported sunglasses atop his head. The pair returned to Clark’s apartment 10 minutes later.
Around 4:30 a.m., the next morning, a night-owl neighbor walked by his door and noticed something strange. The outside metal gate was closed – but the interior wooden door slightly ajar.
The following day, Feb. 27, 2005, concerned neighbors walked into Clark’s apartment to investigate. They found his bound, decomposing body underneath an overturned mattress in the bedroom.
The medical examiner ruled Clark died of asphyxiation. He had no injuries to his body, his skull was intact but the thyroid cartilage in his neck was fractured. Sakin said the injuries are consistent with Clark dying in an accidental sexual act, while Angell said Merchison strangled or suffocated him.
Miami homicide detectives and crime scene investigators pored over the scene for days. The lock to the metal front door, which could only be opened from the inside with a key, had been busted so the killer could escape, prosecutors said.
A cigarette butt sat in an ashtray – but Clark didn’t smoke. Blood-soaked paper towels were in the bedroom. A fingerprint was lifted from the cold-water faucet in the bathroom.
Police matched the print to Merchison. His DNA later was matched to bloodstains found on both sides of Clark’s T-shirt, Angell said. Merchison’s sunglasses was also found inside Clark’s apartment.
Defense attorney Sakin said the physical evidence doesn’t mean Merchison was the killer.
“Not one person who is going to say to you when any of this DNA got there,” Sakin said. “Not one person can tell you when any fingerprints got there. You’re going to hear Mr. Clark had different men coming in and out of his apartment at different times. Mr. Clark lived a certain lifestyle.”
Detectives, however, say they have more than just forensic evidence.
When approached by detectives the month after the murder, Merchison had a healing injury to his hand that investigators suspect happened during the murder, Angell said.
And Merchison’s mother gave police a bag belonging to her son. Inside were cigarettes just like the one found in Clark’s apartment, Clark’s missing Movado watch and a screwdriver, one presumably used to bust out of the crime scene, prosecutors said.
Trial continued Wednesday in front of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez.