Richard Merritt (Photo: Alison Church)

A Cobb County judge on Friday sentenced disbarred Smyrna attorney Richard V. Merritt to 15 years in prison and ordered him to pay $454,706 in restitution after he pleaded guilty to 34 felony counts including theft, forgery, exploitation of an elderly person and bank account fraud targeting more than a dozen former clients.

Kimberly Asaza, a spokeswoman for the office of Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds, said 13 of Merritt’s victims testified at his sentencing before Superior Court Judge Robert Flournoy III.  

In a written statement, Merritt’s attorney, Marietta solo David Willingham, said his client took responsibility for his actions and blamed Merritt’s downfall in part on alcohol abuse.  

Merritt’s “was easily one of the toughest cases, if not the toughest case, I’ve ever handled,” Willingham said.

“My client did not set out in his legal career with evil intentions or with a plan to become a thief, liar and deceiver,” Willingham said. “He developed into that person slowly over time and under the pressure, stress and anxiety associated with practicing law—as well as an addiction to alcohol.”

Willingham also said Merritt’s 15-year prison sentence sentence “is disproportionate to recent sentences in similar cases involving attorney misconduct, which I explained at the sentencing hearing and provided several examples.”

Merritt, a civil litigator who was disbarred last year after admitting to stealing settlement funds meant for a client, also is the subject of multiple civil suits in Cobb involving stolen funds and claims that he mishandled or abandoned clients’ cases.

Merritt had been free on $400,000 bond until Friday, when he entered a non-negotiated plea to all charges.

According to Merritt’s indictment, he stole more than $200,000 from clients after cashing settlement checks and pocketing the money between 2014 and 2017.

Merritt formerly ran his own firm handling personal injury and medical malpractice, and in 2017 he sued two attorneys on behalf of spine surgeon and frequent medical expert James Chappuis.