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Death Penalty Avoided in West Palm Beach Murder Case

Paul Merhige pleaded guilty this week to killing four of his relatives in Jupiter, Florida on Thanksgiving, 2009. The plea agreement Merhige’s defense attorney reached with the Palm Beach County prosecutors will spare him the death penalty in exchange for seven consecutive life sentences.

Merhige admitted shooting and killing two of his sisters, his aunt and his cousin’s six-year-old daughter. Two others were injured in the shooting. Merhige fled the scene and was found about a month later at a motel in the Florida Keys.

The shootings occurred after the entire family had shared Thanksgiving dinner. Later that evening, Merhige left the house and returned with a gun.

The plea agreement came quickly on the heels of a filing by Merhige’s defense attorneys, indicating that they might use the insanity defense at trial. As part of the deal, the defense withdrew that notice.

The victims’ families had mixed responses to the plea agreement. Some agreed with the life sentences; others were disappointed and angry that the state had chosen not to pursue the death penalty after all. The state’s attorney indicated that litigation costs did not factor into his decision to negotiate a plea agreement with Merhige’s attorneys but that the length of time the prosecution and appeals process would take was a factor he considered.

According to the prosecutor, the Palm Beach County state’s attorney’s office has sought the death penalty seven times since January 2009 and not one of those juries has recommended the death penalty. The difficulty in convincing a jury to vote for a death sentence may well have factored into the decision to negotiate a plea agreement with Merhige.

Merhige will never be eligible for parole.

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