Man who killed ex by injecting her with cyanide starts foaming in court forcing judge to delay his sentencing

Joseph Merlino attacked 35-year-old Ellie Tran as she was walking up to her front door and injected her with cyanide. She was declared as brain-dead hours later

                            Man who killed ex by injecting her with cyanide starts foaming in court forcing judge to delay his sentencing

The sentencing of a 31-year-old man who was convicted of poisoning his ex-girlfriend with cyanide has been postponed after he was wheeled into the courtroom foaming at the mouth and unresponsive on December 5. Joseph Merlino III was brought into the courtroom reclined in a gurney-style wheelchair and was covered with a blanket. He was seen shaking from side to side while sitting in the courtroom. A jail doctor then testified that Merlino may have been suffering from a mental condition that was brought on by stress.

WTKR News 3 reported that Judge Les Lilley made the decision to postpone the sentencing until December 10. The prosecutors are going to look to determine if they can proceed with the case without Merlino being there to participate. Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Mario Lorello said after the incident: "This came out of nowhere. We didn't find out about it until this morning."

In June this year, a jury convicted Merlino of first-degree murder for the cyanide poisoning of Ellie Tran and recommended to the judge that he serve a life sentence. The judge was supposed to impose Merlino's prison sentence on December 5 morning.

When Merlino was in prison, he started a hunger strike about two months before his June trial began and lost about 40lbs. According to jail spokesperson Kathy Hieatt, the man kept the hunger strike going until a little after the trial ended around July 4. She told The Virginia-Pilot: "He hasn't been on meal monitoring for quite some time." She also said that staff in the jail were not aware that there were any emergency medical conditions since that time.


35-year-old Tran was attacked around 8 pm on February 14, 2017. This was only moments after she pulled her car up to her home, close to the intersection of Salem and Dam Neck roads. She was seen in CCTV footage walking up to her front door when she was grabbed from behind and then injected with cyanide. The mother was declared as brain-dead hours later and died on February 15.

The vicious assault was captured by surveillance cameras that Tran had installed after her family members said Merlino had tried to break into her home. Tran's mother was also in court to testify in June that she saw Merlino standing across the street from her daughter's home only moments before she was attacked.

The devastated mother described that her daughter's last moments on Earth were a lot like how Merlino was in court for his sentencing: unresponsive and foaming at the mouth. The woman, who was also a longtime neighbor of Merlino's, testified at the trial that he has been the one who attacked her daughter in the video.

The prosecutors also presented evidence in the court showing Merlino's computer had been used to make a series of internet searches about cyanide just three weeks before he launched the attack on Tran. An FBI cryptanalyst also testified at the trial about some letters that Merlino wrote in code to his new girlfriend in China.


Merlino had written directions for his Chinese girlfriend in the letters on how to create a fake web chat alibi for him. The man took to the stand in his own defense at the trial and denied that he had any part to play in Tran's murder. He claimed that he was about 150 miles away from Tran's residence allegedly visiting family.