RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- A jury has found a man guilty in the Andy Banks murder trial, after the prosecution and defense presented their closing statements Friday morning.
Justin Merritt was found guilty of first-degree murder, felonious larceny. robbery with a dangerous weapon, and possession of a firearm by a felon.
Merritt was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after being found guilty of all four charges.
"I would like to apologize to you guys for any hurt, any pain, any sorrow or anguish that I've caused you," said Merritt. "Please hear me when I say, this was never my intention. Never was. I just want to say I'm so sorry. So sorry."
Merritt also apologized to his own family.
Prior to sentencing, Judge A. Graham Shirley instructed Merritt to stand alone, in silence for one minute, before speaking.
"There are plenty of people out there who would have loved to have had one more minute with Andy Banks. To say goodbye. To reconcile any disagreements they had. And you deprived his family and his friends of that ability," said Shirley.
Banks' father, Bill Banks, said forgiveness was a process.
"Forgiveness, if you understand, is not for the individual, it is for the self not to have hate," Banks said. "I will get there but at this moment I cannot truthfully tell you that I am there."
Andy Banks' mother did express forgiveness toward Merritt in her victim impact statement.
"For whatever it is worth to you, I, Andy's momma, forgive you. I do this not in my own strength ... but in the power of the holy spirit in me that enables me to do this," said Robin Banks, who was the last of three family members to speak.
The Banks family wanted to make sure Andy's memory remained in focus.
"Andy was rich in spirit, and enjoyed living life on his terms," Robin Banks said.
For four days, friends and family packed Courtroom 704.
"It defines who he was. He had friends beyond numbers. And they all thought and loved him well enough to support this family at this time," said Bill Banks.
His father gave credit to authorities in both Raleigh and Virginia, as well as the Wake County District Attorney's office, for their efforts in tracking down Merritt and taking the case to trial.
Andy Banks disappeared in September 2020, after he met the defendant Merritt, in an attempt to sell a Range Rover. 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 more than 90,000 miles and was selling for about $15,000, according to court statements.
The defense has conceded that Merritt shot and killed Banks, but argued it was not premeditated or deliberate, key aspects to a first-degree murder charge.
"Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Five times. Shoots him. Point blank range. Every time (Merritt) pulls the trigger, you got to think 'I'm pulling this trigger. I know what happens when I pull the trigger of a gun at point-blank range.' Every time. Every single bullet is premeditation and deliberation," said Assistant District Attorney Patrick Latour.
Latour highlighted Merritt's financial limitations, insinuating he could not have afforded the $15,000 asking price for the Range Rover.
The defense pushed back on that assertion, saying the prosecution did not call any witnesses who could attest to his financial situation. Furthermore, as public defender Alexis Strombotne contended in her opening statement Tuesday, she said Merritt did not take steps to conceal his identity.
"Let's begin with the fact that Justin used his real name, his real phone number, and real e-mail address to communicate with Andy. And that matters. How on earth would he have gotten away with this? If Justin was planning to rob Andy, let alone kill him, why not use a fake number," Strombotne said.
She further pointed to text messages showing the time and location of their meeting were both of Banks' choosing as further evidence that Merritt did not come from Virginia to Raleigh with a plan to commit a crime.
To finish its closing, the defense stated it believed Merritt was guilty of second-degree murder; Judge Shirley dismissed the jury and confirmed with Merritt that he understood and agreed with his defense's strategy.