NEW: Paul Merhige waives the right to appeal as part of his plea agreement
He gets seven life terms after pleading guilty to murders, but avoids the death penalty
Authorities say he shot several relatives, some fatally, on Thanksgiving in 2009
Some victims' family members rejected the plea deal, others supported it
A Florida man pleaded guilty Thursday to murdering four relatives on Thanksgiving Day in 2009, avoiding a possible death sentence after reaching a plea deal with prosecutors.
After hearing from relatives of the victims, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Joseph Marx sentenced Paul Merhige to seven life terms. As part of the agreement, the defendant agreed to waive any rights of appeal.
“You’ll never see the light of day,” Marx told the 37-year-old Merhige on Thursday, in front of a packed West Palm Beach courtroom.
Having shaved his head and tried to disguise his 2007 blue Toyota Camry with a car cover and switching its license plate, Merhige was arrested in January 2010 at a Florida Keys motel after an “America’s Most Wanted” viewer recognized him. He was on a computer when U.S. marshals burst into his second-floor room at the Edgewater Lodge, where he had checked in under the name John Baca, according to authorities.
Merhige was then charged with four counts of premeditated murder and three counts attempted first-degree murder in the Thanksgiving night shooting deaths of his twin sisters, a 6-year-old cousin and a 79-year-old aunt at a family home in Jupiter, Florida.
One of the victims – Lisa Knight, 33, who was one of Merhige’s sisters – was pregnant.
Her husband, Patrick, was one of two other family members who survived after being wounded in the shooting rampage, authorities said.
Family members suggested in interviewers that Merhige “had ongoing resentment” for some of his relatives, Jupiter Police spokeswoman Sally Collins-Ortiz said shortly after the shootings.
Patrick Knight, who was shot in the stomach, was among the family members who told the judge Thursday that he approved the plea deal. He explained that he wanted to “pick up the pieces” and did not want to endure “20 years” of appeals.
But Jim Sitton, whose 6-year-old daughter, Makayla, was among those gunned down, objected to the agreement as he wanted Merhige to go on trial and potentially face the death penalty.
He urged the judge to delay the sentencing so he could “prepare a proper presentation” with an attorney to detail his argument. Near the end of his statement Thursday, the judge sternly told Sitton – then carrying a large picture of his daughter – to “stop!” after he knelt down.
“This plea decision is far too important to rush through without any time for us, for all of us, to think,” said Sitton, accusing the state of trying to push the deal through. “We’ve been waiting patiently for almost two years for this case to come to trial. … Justice is what is at stake here.”
The start of Merhige’s trial had been set for January.
His public defenders had filed court documents expressing their intent to defend him using an insanity defense.
After Thursday’s court proceeding, State Attorney Michael McAuliffe released a statement in which he said that – “after careful evaluation and consideration” – he decided to accept Merhige’s plea, having determined it is “an appropriate resolution to the case.”
Noting the disparate opinions among the victims’ family members and about the death penalty generally, McAuliffe said he felt it sufficient that Merhige “will have no hope of having favorable rulings by a court” and “will have no ability to affect … the lives of those he harmed.”
“I believe that seven consecutive life sentences recognize the heinous nature of the crimes and adequately punish the defendant,” he said.