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Trial starts for Va. man police say killed wife with cyanide

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Nearly a year and half after his arrest, Joseph Merlino’s trial is set to begins in Virginia Beach.

Joseph Merlino

Merlino was arrested in February 2017 after police say he injected his estranged wife, Ellie Tran, with cyanide on Valentine’s Day, ultimately killing her.

Merlino is pleading not guilty to the murder charges he faces. In jail last week, Merlino told News 3 he is innocent but would not elaborate further on the case.

Merlino has been on a hunger strike in the Virginia Beach City Jail in April 16.

The trial had a slow start. It took the entire first day for a jury to be seated. Some of the concerns jurors had were with the extensive media coverage of the case, the violent death of Tran and the fact that the trial is expected to last several days.

Before jury selection began, Merlino told the judge he was not satisfied with how his attorney’s handled his case. The defense asked for a continuance but the judge ultimately denied the request.

On day two of the trial the prosecution showed surveillance video of the attack from Tran’s Virginia Beach home. In the video you can see Tran park in the driveway, as she walks to her front door someone jumps out of the bushes and knocks her to the ground before running away.

Joseph Merlino

According to the prosecution, Merlino is the man in the surveillance video. They say he was armed with a syringe filled with cyanide.

The prosecution’s first witness was Tran’s mother Oanh Thi Le. On the stand she had to listen to the 9-1-1 call her daughter made moments after being attacked and had to watch video of the incident. She became so emotional at one point, she had to be taken out of the courtroom.

On day three of Merlino’s trial, a detective with the Virginia Beach Police Department took the stand. The Commonwealth says he is a key witness, they asked News 3 to not identify the detective because he is undercover, but say he is an expert in computers.

On the stand, the detective revealed searches that were stored on Joseph Merlino’s laptop. Some of those searches had to do with cyanide, examples of the searches are below:

“How many milligrams of cyanide will kill you?”

“What if cyanide gets in the bloodstream?”

“What if cyanide gets injected?”

According to the detective, Merlino made searches about cyanide in late January.

A former italian restaurant owner also took the stand on day 3 of the trial. She claims to have witnessed Joseph Merlino taking a package from her business in late January. The prosecution claims the package he took was from an Etsy shop owner from New Hampshire. The owner of the Etsy shop also took the stand and explained that Joseph Merlino ordered a hypodermic needle from her business in late January. She was told to ship the needle to the same Virginia Beach restaurant where Merlino took the package.

The defense says Merlino is innocent in the death of Ellie Tran. They claim at the time of the attack he was in Victoria, Virginia with his family.