PACE — For three-and-a-half years Melinda Kohlhaas has lived with the torment that comes with waiting for the man who has admitted killing her son to be tried for the murder.
“We’ve seen so many cases go to trial and the lawyers come away with convictions, but here it is three years later and we’re still waiting,” she said. “I know they (prosecutors) have a job to do and I’m sure they’ll do it very well. But I just want it done and over with.”
Jacob Langston, 25, has been charged with killing Kohlhaas’s 22-year-old son, Elbert Merrick III, along with his own mother, Shanna McGrath, and step father, Kevin McGrath. All three were gunned down Jan. 23, 2016 at the McGrath’s home on Peoria Boulevard.
The First Judicial Circuit’s State Attorney’s Office announced in March of 2016 that it intended to seek the death penalty for Langston, who was 22 at the time of the fatal shootings. In announcing the decision, it said the killings had been committed in a “cold calculated, premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification.”
A hearing in the case has been scheduled for July 18, and Bill Bishop, the chief assistant state attorney for Okaloosa County, said he is hopeful a trial can be held before the end of this year.
Kohlhaas’s last memory of her son was his shrugging on a jacket and putting a cap on his head to fend off the winter chill as he left for the McGrath home to pick up the belongings of a young woman he had dated, but was no longer seeing.
The young woman, who had been engaged to Langston before dating Merrick, had moved out of state.
“She wasn’t his girlfriend. They had dated and they had remained friends. My son was just the kind of guy you could call on for help,” Kohlhaas said.
Langston told police investigating the shootings he was anticipating Merrick’s arrival and had armed himself “in case Elbert had someone with him to start trouble.” After the two loaded the woman’s belongings into Merrick’s Jeep Cherokee they began arguing and shoving one another, Langston said, “and he pointed the gun at Elbert, telling him to leave.”
In Langston’s version of events, Merrick climbed into the Jeep but Langston prevented him from closing the vehicle’s door. “He stated that Elbert pushed him back and he pulled the trigger on the handgun.”
Kohlhaas resents that Langston’s version of events is the only one anyone will ever hear, and it haunts her to this day that her son’s body was found lying in the roadway in front of the McGrath home.
“They only know what Jacob told them. I don’t know,” she said. “I can tell you my son was not a confrontational person. He wasn’t and would never be. What happened? I don’t know. I don’t know how my son wound up in the street.”
Langston admittedly left Merrick’s body to roll out into Peoria Boulevard as he followed his mother and stepfather into the house, according to the Crestview Police Department’s report on the case. The mother and stepmother had heard gunshots and come outside. Shanna McGrath went inside to call 911.
The arrest report states 911 dispatchers heard five gunshots after Shanna McGrath made good on her statement to call for help.
“He advised that she didn’t stop the call and he squeezed the handgun, shooting Shanna,” the report narrative states.
Langston and Kevin McGrath engaged in a gunfight during which, Langston told police, he was shot twice, in the shoulder and back. At one point the two agreed to go back to the room where Shanna had been shot to check her condition. There, Langston grabbed the third gun he would use that day and killed his stepfather.
He also shot two of his family’s dogs, killing one and severely injuring the second. He faces felony cruelty to animal charges along with three counts of first degree pre-mediated murder.
The first trial date set for Langston was April 11, 2016, but no first degree murder case, particularly one involving the death penalty, can ever be expected to be heard within three months.
Unforeseen developments began really slowing the movement of the Langston case through the legal system in May of 2016. That month Langston wrote letters to the State Attorney’s Office and presiding Judge Michael Flowers to inform them that he had information about several fellow inmates.
After the letters went out both the State Public Defender’s Office and the Office of Regional Conflict were granted permission to withdraw from the Langston case. Each organization cited conflicts created by Langston’s willingness to provide testimony against existing clients.
Four other defense attorneys bowed out of defending Langston between May and August of 2016. All said conflicts of interest had occurred and at least one said it was Langston’s efforts to turn in his fellow inmates that had forced her to request to be removed from the case.
The State Attorney’s Office also had to shift gears in May of 2018 when Assistant State Attorney Angela Mason, who had been assigned to prosecute Langston shortly after his arrest, was appointed an Okaloosa County judge. The state was forced to turn over its case to Bridgette Jensen, another experienced assistant state attorney for the First Judicial Circuit, Bishop said.
The most recent snag in the proceedings occurred when defense attorney Philip Massa was injured in an accident, according to Bishop. The accident forced Flowers to move a hearing set for earlier this year to July 18.
Massa, a South Florida attorney, has been on the Langston case since August of 2016. Local attorney Don Whitmyer signed on in April of 2017 as co-counsel.
“My hope is we will be able to get it tried by the end of the year. Maybe even by fall,” Bishop said.