For parts of three days, friends and neighbors came to court to describe Samuel and Donna Merryman as giving and loving parents. Most said they could hardly believe that the Harford County couple could be responsible for the death of an 8-year-old son.
But yesterday, prosecutors said that two of the couple's other children provided a look inside the family home in Whiteford -- where, they said, their brother was bound, strapped to a crib and deprived of solid food.
And then a judge sentenced the parents to 22 years in prison each. They had, the judge said, starved young Dennis Gene Merryman to death.
"All you need to do is look at the autopsy photos of Dennis," Harford County Circuit Judge Emory A. Plitt said. "It has a striking resemblance to the bodies from the German concentration camps."
Dennis died in January 2005. Photos taken the day he died showed an emaciated 37-pound body.
Two older siblings described how Dennis spent nights in an unheated room, strapped to a crib without a mattress to cushion him. His hands were tied behind his back with an elastic band, and bells were attached to his body so his parents could hear him when he moved, the siblings testified.
They said Dennis was fed a puree of yogurt and asparagus as punishment for misbehaving.
In a stumbling voice, Donna Merryman, 45, gave a statement before she was sentenced, accepting responsibility for the death of the boy that the couple had adopted from Russia in 2000. She said she and her husband discovered that the boy had what they called frightening behavioral issues.
"It's not the children's fault," she said. "We bit off more than we could handle, which is our fault -- not Dennis'."
The Merrymans adopted four siblings from Russia and brought them to their Harford County farm. The children, along with the Merrymans' three biological children, are now in foster care.
"In hindsight, we were the problem, not Dennis," Donna Merryman said. "We accept responsibility and ask forgiveness from our God and our children."
When the judge handed down the sentence for the couple, Donna and Samuel Merryman, 40, were not emotional, although others in the courtroom started weeping. Instead, the Merrymans conferred with their defense attorneys and then were led away in handcuffs.
During the three-day sentencing hearing, friends and neighbors packed the court, often hugging the Merrymans and speaking of their deep faith. In response to the characterizations, Harford County Assistant State's Attorney Diane Adkins-Tobin displayed an autopsy photograph of a skeletal child. Dennis' jawbones and cheekbones jutted from his face, and his ribs protruded from his frail body.
Adkins-Tobin repeatedly asked the character witnesses how anyone could describe parents who so knowingly abused their child as kind and loving.
"The heinousness goes further," Adkins-Tobin said. "They involved other children in it. Not only did they require them to take part in the abuse [by tying up their brother], but they made them play a role in the cover-up. Dennis, by dying, saved the rest of the children."
One of the Merrymans' attorneys, Andrew Alperstein, said grief and the destruction of their family had already punished them.
"Any objective person can see Dennis was in bad physical shape," Alperstein said. "The Merrymans did not set out to kill this child."
Craig Kadish, another defense attorney, said the couple has not yet decided whether to appeal the sentencing. They had pleaded guilty to first-degree child abuse resulting in death, and had charges of second-degree murder and four counts of child abuse dropped.
Prosecutors had asked the judge for the maximum 30-year sentence. But Plitt handed down 22 years, with credit given for the last three years that the Merrymans have been under house arrest.
"I have no sympathy for them at all," said Adkins-Tobin. "They had no sympathy for Dennis. They were cruel and inhuman."
The family's supporters sobbed and formed a prayer circle inside the courtroom after the Merrymans were taken away.
Their former pastor, the Rev. John A. Dekker, said, "They're not criminals. They tried to do certain things for Dennis and it backfired. The judge had no sympathy."
Before announcing his sentence, Plitt read a statement from one of the Merrymans' daughters.
"Children are not made to be abused. My parents ruined and shamed so many lives. ... Dennis deserved to live, not die."