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Accused murderer breaks his silence from Virginia Beach City Jail

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Joseph Merlino has broken his silence from the Virginia Beach City Jail.

Merlino was arrested in February 2017 after police say he murdered his estranged wife, Elle Tran, by injecting her with cyanide. He has refused all media interviews since his arrest, but on Wednesday, he decided to speak to News 3 about his ongoing hunger strike at the jail.

Virginia Beach Jail staff say Merlino has been uncooperative behind bars. On April 16, those actions took a dire turn when they say he stopped eating all food.

"There is a completely reasonable reason as to why I am not eating now at this point," said Merlino from behind jail protective glass. "This is just the surface of the iceberg, there’s a huge development on the bottom."

According to Merlino there are actually several reasons for his hunger strike, but the only reason he would share with News 3 had to do with the conditions at the jail.

"I’m just talking about the conditions right now," said Merlino. "For any other issues I’d like the to have my attorney present."

Merlino says the conditions at the jail are poor. By refusing to eat, he hopes those conditions will change.

"I believe in the saying 'if you're not willing to stand up for your rights, what rights do you have?' That’s all I’m saying. What rights do you have in this country if you’re not willing to stand up like so many people have in this country?"

Since Merlino stopped eating, he has been on suicide watch. Jail staff say he lost nearly 40 pounds. They have been checking on him every 15-minutes to make sure that he is alive and conscious. Merlino says this type of treatment is unnecessary.

"It’s meant for people who are on suicide watch, suicide prevention. I’m not suicidal I’ve never been suicidal," said Merlino. "They want me to make a mistake and maybe say something wrong so they can declare me incompetent and can force a tube down my throat and force feed me which is totally unnecessary at this point."

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Virginia Beach Sheriff, Ken Stolle, says he has never had an inmate go on a hunger strike longer than 15-20 days.

"It’s extremely difficult and puts a lot of burdens on us," Sheriff Stolle said. "It probably costs about $100,000 a week additional for us to keep this guy going with all the medical care and attention he is getting."

Sheriff Stolle says he believes this may all be a publicity stunt before his trial begins on June 19.

"I think this guy is enjoying the show right now."

Merlino says that's not the case.

"I’ve been in the news over 80 times, ok. I’ve been asked to do interviews several times weekly, monthly basis," explained Merlino. "If I wanted publicity I would have done so every single week."

Merlino also says his hunger strike was not a ploy to have his trial pushed back. He claims he is innocent of all charges against him and expects to be found not guilty when his trial wraps up.