By Tim Woerner / Staff writer

After three hours of deliberations, the jury in the Rodney Merida murder trial found him guilty of first-degree manslaughter Tuesday, recommending a 12-year sentence.

Commonwealth attorney Terry Beckner said the verdict might mean jurors were able to believe Rodney Merida didn’t intend to kill Brandon Kelley, but still felt the evidence proved he did intend to do serious bodily harm.

Barbourville Police arrived at the Catron Square apartment of Rodney Merida’s ex-wife Kaylene Merida on the morning of April 2, 2005 – the couple was married but separated at the time – and found an injured Kelley lying outside in the rain. Kelley died about 36 hours later, due to brain herniations from mass trauma to the head, according to an autopsy report.

By Kaylene Merida’s account of the incident during the trial, Kelley arrived at the apartment uninvited about 15 minutes after Rodney Merida left that evening. She said Kelley offered her $500 and help re-acquiring custody of her children in return for sex.

Kaylene Merida, who had a court order mandating Rodney Merida stay 500 feet away, had been drinking with Rodney Merida and two friends earlier that night.

Rodney Merida then returned, unaware of the proposition but yelling at Kelley for telling Kaylene Merida that Rodney Merida had cheated on her.

But Kaylene Merida, who said she initially told Barbourville Police she didn’t know Kelley because she was scared, then backtracked from her initial statement to police that Kelley threw the first punch. She said his hand brushed Rodney Merida’s chin accidentally before Rodney Merida attacked him.

“I told [Rodney] to stop,” she said, “and he grabbed me and threw me into the kitchen.”

Kentucky State Police trooper Mark Mefford said when he arrived on the scene Rodney Merida’s hands were swollen and he had blood on his pant legs.

Pictures showed drops of blood caked in the carpet and more splatters and smears on walls, and an audio tape of Rodney Merida being interviewed by Mefford included an admission that Rodney Merida struck Kelley “on the top of the head.”

Defense attorney David Hoskins expressed disappointment at the verdict, and argued that Kaylene Merida’s story lacked credibility.

“She told so many lies that her testimony is not believable,” Hoskins said.

Hoskins also pointed out that autopsy results found no broken bones or ribs in Kelley’s body.

He said that while it was clear Kelley and Rodney Merida had been in a fight, Rodney Merida had no reason to believe a black eye and a bloody nose would lead to serious harm.

Beckner, though, said punches and kicks to the head could cause brain swelling and bleeding without breaking any bones, and argued in his closing statement that Kelley “didn’t deserve to be hit once – much less again and again.”

A September 2003 motorcycle accident Kelley was involved in was also an issue during the trial, discussed as a possible explanation for the complications that led to Kelley’s death.

Kaylene Merida testified that Kelley told her he had a metal plate in his head, something Rodney Merida would have been aware of when he assaulted Kelley.

But Dr. Cristin M. Rolf, who performed the autopsy, said there was no metal plate and that such injuries usually leave scarring not present in Kelley.

A sentencing hearing for Rodney Merida is scheduled for Oct. 6 at 1 p.m.

Tim Woerner can be reached at twoerner@thetimestribune.com

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