NEOSHO, Mo. — A McDonald County man — convicted of two counts of involuntary manslaughter in a drunken driving accident 15 years ago that claimed the lives of a 7-year-old girl and her grandfather — was ordered Tuesday to stand trial on the second of two drunken driving charges he has picked up since his release from prison.
Associate Judge Christina Rhoades decided at the conclusion of a preliminary hearing in Newton County Circuit Court that there was probable cause for Edward J. Meerwald Jr., 64, of Noel, to stand trial on a persistent offender count of driving while intoxicated. The judge set July 15 for the defendant's initial appearance on the charge in a trial division of the court.
The charge stems from a May 3 arrest by Joplin police.
Meerwald waived a preliminary hearing Jan. 19 on another persistent offender charge of driving while intoxicated incurred June 17 of last year when a state trooper stopped him on Missouri Highway 59 south of Split Log Road in McDonald County. That charge remains pending in McDonald County Circuit Court.
Both counts are Class E felonies punishable by up to four years in prison.
Meerwald served two seven-year terms assessed on convictions for involuntary manslaughter in the 2004 deaths of Jessica E. Mann and her grandfather, James L. Dodson, 69. The victims were walking hand in hand to the mailbox outside Dodson's home near Neosho when Meerwald hit them with the car he was driving.
Dodson was killed instantly. The girl died later after surgery.
Their deaths inspired the passage of what became known as Jessica's Law in Missouri, legislation that stiffened penalties for drunken drivers who cause fatalities and increased the consequences for repeat offenders.
Joplin police Officer Arthur Brophy was the lone witness called to testify at Tuesday's hearing. Brophy stopped a Chevrolet Colorado pickup truck that Meerwald was driving May 3 on the south side of Joplin and arrested him on a probable cause charge of driving while intoxicated after performing some field sobriety tests.
Brophy said he responded to 50th and Main streets when an off-duty officer reported an intoxicated man at that location that the officer believed might attempt to leave at the wheel of a vehicle. Brophy said he tried to make the stop just south of Interstate 44 on Main Street, but the defendant drove to 44th Street before pulling over.
The officer said that he conducted field sobriety tests on the defendant as well a preliminary breath test. He noted the tests indicated signs of intoxication and that the breath test result exceeded the 0.08% blood alcohol level threshold for an intoxicated driver under state law.
Brophy acknowledged on cross-examination by public defender Charles Oppelt that Meerwald informed him before one of the field tests that he had problems maintaining his balance because of a medical condition.