1st-degree murder for man who killed Andy Banks during Range Rover sale in Raleigh

After deliberating for over two hours, a jury found a Virginia man guilty of first-degree murder for killing William “Andy” Banks during the sale of his Range Rover in Raleigh two years ago.

The jury also found Justin Fernando Merritt, 36, guilty of robbery, larceny and possession of a firearm by a felon.

A first-degree murder conviction has an automatic sentence of life in prison, but Judge Graham Shirley could give Merritt additional prison time for the other crimes.

Defendants are typically sentenced immediately after a jury verdict.

The verdict is not necessarily surprising.

Merritt had admitted shooting and killing Banks while test driving Banks’ 2011 Range Rover for a second time in September 2020.

In addition, a prosecutor put on four days of evidence, while Merritt’s attorney didn’t put on any.

Merritt’s attorney Alexis Strombotne utilized her 10-minute closing argument to try to convince the jury that Merritt should be found guilty of second-degree murder. Strombotne argued that Merritt didn’t plan to kill Banks, but panicked.

“There is one word for what occurred here: panic,” she said. “Pure panic”

Strombotne said premeditation — that Merritt planned to killed Banks — doesn’t make sense since he reached out to Banks using his real email address and phone number. He also brought his brother-in-law and niece to test drive the car that day, she said.

Wake County Assistant District Attorney Patrick Latour, however, argued that Merritt likely planned to take the SUV since he didn’t appear to have any money since he didn’t have a job, lived with his mother in Danville, Virginia and didn’t have a car.

“Just because you are dumb doesn’t mean you’re not a murderer,” said Latour, responding to Strombotne’s statements about Merritt using his email address and phone number in arranging the test drives for the SUV he found online.

Regardless of whether Merritt planned to kill Banks before he left Virginia, Latour argued that Merritt deciding to pick up his gun and shoot Banks again and again – at least five times – meets the definition of premeditation and deliberation.

Under North Carolina law, first-degree murder includes premeditation and deliberation, but case law has shown those legal concepts can take only a matter of seconds between gunshots. 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 or a larceny.

During closing arguments, about 30 spectators sat on the five rows of wooden courtroom benches. Many were Banks’ family and friends, including his parents.

Met at Cameron Village for test drive

Merritt, 26, of Danville, Virginia, 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 statements in court.

Merritt initially met Banks, who was known to fix and sell cars, on Sept. 8, 2020, in the parking lot of the former K&W Cafeteria in Cameron Village, now known as the Village District.

They met at the same spot on Sept. 12, 2020, the day Banks disappeared. Merritt’s brother-in-law John Wilkins III and niece rode down to Raleigh with Merritt in his mother’s SUV.

When Banks pulled into the former K&W parking lot around 2 p.m., he moved to the passenger side of the Range Rover 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 back to Virginia until they separated around Yanceyville.

Latour said if Merritt had shown any human decency, he that would have kept Banks safe as he tried to sell a 2011 Range Rover two years ago.

“What’s keeping me from just killing this guy and taking his stuff,” Latour said.

“That’s the question that the defendant asked himself on Sept. 12, 2020.”

Merritt didn’t appear to have the money, Latour said. Merritt, who worked as a welder, had been laid off, lived with his mother and didn’t have a car.

Banks, who was described by friends as outgoing and friendly, bought and sold cars online.

Banks was shot at least five times

The evidence indicates that during a Sept. 12, 2020, test drive, Merritt pulled out a gun and shot Banks at close range in the Range Rover at least five times as Banks crouched toward the passenger side door, possibly trying to get out, Latour said.

The gun was so close to Banks that it singed the blue rain coat he was wearing.

After the shooting, Merritt searched for a map to figure out how to return to K&W parking lot and then a rural area in Virginia, Latour contended.

Merritt pushed Banks’ body down in the front seat, met his brother-in-law in the K&W parking lot and drove with Banks’ body in the SUV to a rural area in Virginia, Latour said.

There Merritt pulled Banks from the SUV and dragged Banks’ body by the feet to a spot in the tall grass, where it was found five days later.

Police found Banks’ Range Rover the day after he disappeared. It had been covered and parked behind a church near Merritt’s home in Danville.

In the SUV, police found blood on the front seat, bullet holes, spent shell casings and cleaning supplies, according to testimony. Someone had tried to clean up the blood on the front passenger side seat.

This is a breaking news story. Please return for a fuller report and after the jury reaches a verdict.