The woman accused of stabbing her husband to death at the Tioga Hotel pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of second-degree murder with an enhancement for use of a deadly weapon.
Courtney Ross, 32, made her first in-person appearance at the Merced County Superior Court wearing a yellow jailhouse jumpsuit and a bandage on her right hand. She had briefly appeared in court Wednesday via a live video feed at the Merced County Jail, where she's being held without bail.
The hearing-impaired defendant communicated through a sign language interpreter. The defendant broke into tears as she communicated with her attorney, John Garcia, minutes before her arraignment.
Commissioner Ralph J. Cook set a pretrial hearing and a bail review hearing for Aug. 4 at 8:15 a.m. in courtroom 10.
Several family members and friends of Courtney Ross and her husband, Jonathan Ross, 25, were present during the arraignment. The couple had recently relocated to Merced from North Carolina.
Merced police say the defendant stabbed the victim to death after an argument.
Officers responded to the 1715 N. St. hotel about 1:20 a.m. Monday after someone called the police. The victim was found with three stab wounds to the upper torso and pronounced dead at the scene.
Merced police earlier this week confirmed the defendant's husband had a history of domestic violence and had served time in jail.
Garcia, who's taking the case pro-bono, said he has received the preliminary reports but is awaiting others. There are also out-of-state witnesses whose names and addresses are being compiled, he added.
Garcia said his staff has reasons to believe that there are records showing the Jonathan Ross was previously arrested for spousal battery against the defendant.
On the night of the stabbing, Courtney Ross had bruises on both of her shoulders and cuts to her hand, he said, and had X-rays taken for possible broken fingers.
"We are trying to work as expeditiously as possible. My client is incarcerated and if she doesn't deserve to be there, we don't want to keep her there any longer," Garcia said.
He said he believes his client's actions were justifiable and that the facts will show it.
Merced County Deputy District Attorney David Sandhaus said the case needs to be carefully analyzed.
"We believe that a homicide has been committed, and it needs to be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted," he said.
Self-defense is one aspect of the case the district attorney's office will look at as evidence develops, he said.
"We'll obviously be open-minded and look at all the facts and evidence in this case," he said.
The victim's mother, Kelly Ross, said she was still in shock. "It's awful," she said through a sign-language interpreter.
Kelly Ross said her son wanted to divorce his wife and move back to North Carolina to reunite with another woman with whom he was in love.
"She shouldn't have taken a person's life for that," she said.
Desjunae Isaacs, the fiancée of one of Jonathan Ross' brothers, said Courtney Ross had been drinking Sunday night.
"I walked her home that night," she said. "She was drunk and acting a little bit weird."
Courtney Ross seemed depressed at the time, Isaacs said.
They walked home about 11 p.m. Sunday, Isaacs said.
Kayla Melendy, fiancée to another of Jonathan Ross' brothers, is taking care of the couple's two young daughters. She said the 1-year-old and the 3-year-old are doing well.
Melendy said Courtney Ross had recently told her crying that "if anything ever happened," that she wanted her to keep Liz, the 3-year-old.
Betsy Ross, Jonathan Ross' sister-in-law, said the family doesn't hate Courtney Ross.
"No one should hate her. Just pray for her," she said. "And nobody should judge her because that's up to God."
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@ mercedsun-star.com.