The former Chestatee High School band director said his life over the past two years has been a “total disaster” that he deserved. The victim in the case told the court that she faced “ridicule and hatred” from her community, school and friends.
Daniel Berry Merck, 52, was given a 20-year sentence with the first four years in prison after pleading guilty to sexual assault of a student and sexual exploitation of children.
Following those first four years, he may serve the remainder of the sentence on probation and will also face the sex offender special conditions of probation.
“The past two years ... I can’t even explain it to you. I mean, my whole world has been turned upside down,” Merck said. “I lost my job, my career, my family, and it’s my fault. And when I look out at all the people that are here, I disappointed a lot of people.”
Defense attorney Blake Poole declined to comment following the sentencing Friday.
“Our office, and more importantly, the victim, appreciate the sentence imposed by the court as appropriate for the case, including the incarceration and the sex offender conditions of the probation,” Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said in a statement.
Poole said during the hearing that the maximum sentence in the case was 45 years.
According to the indictment, Merck was accused of engaging in “sexual contact by having sexual intercourse” with the student “who the accused knew and should have known was a student enrolled at Chestatee High School” between September-November 2016.
The Hall County Sheriff’s Office said the case involved a 16-year-old girl.
Assistant District Attorney Harold Buckler discussed how Merck was “incredibly well thought of” in the community, including having a street sign named for him outside of the school.
Buckler said Merck and the girl became friends on Facebook and started with innocuous conversation that became more flirtatious, with Merck eventually sending the girl “romantic” songs from artists they mutually enjoyed.
“And all the while, judge, that this began, the defendant was her teacher and was the director of her band, which again was to a very great extent her whole world,” Buckler said.
The girl discussed with law enforcement “that she was at the very beginning deeply, deeply uncomfortable given the differences in, frankly, power between the two,” Buckler said.
“She would later say that she felt like the defendant was able to get away with whatever he wanted to do,” Buckler said.
Buckler read from a statement provided by the girl, who recommended jail time in Merck’s sentence.
“It is unacceptable for a teacher, an adult, to manipulate, lie to, exploit and pressure an underaged minor under his own care into a sexually abusive relationship,” a portion of the statement read.
She also called it unacceptable for the community to “support, protect, justify and defend that teacher” while blaming and bullying the victim.
Poole called a long list of witnesses to attest to Merck’s character, saying they believed that Merck was not a risk to the community.
The witnesses asked Superior Court Judge C. Andrew Fuller for mercy, as they believed Merck has already lost so much in his life and has admitted to his wrongdoing.
Poole said during the hearing that Merck was no longer licensed to teach.
Phil Carpenter testified he met Merck when Carpenter became the pastor at Chicopee Baptist Church, saying he knew him “like a son” over the past 15 years or so.
“I’ve seen many tears from his eyes,” Carpenter said.
When asked by Poole if he would trust Merck to teach a Sunday school or music, Carpenter said he felt “what he did is over” and would have no qualms recommending him for such a position.
Merck denied abusing his power as a teacher over this student
He was originally arrested in October 2019 after school district officials became aware of allegations with a former student.
The school district said Merck has worked with the school system since 1999 and was a music teacher and band director.
Hall County Schools spokesman Stan Lewis previously told The Times Merck resigned two weeks following his arrest.