Paul Merhige pled guilty as charged in the Thanksgiving Day Massacre case, receiving seven consecutive life sentences and avoiding the possibility of execution. While some of the family members of Paul Merhige's victims supported the plea deal, James Sitton, the father of six-year-old Makayla Sitton, the youngest of the victims, expressed outrage over the plea.
There is little doubt that prosecutors involved in the case thoroughly debated, contemplated, and struggled with the prospect of entering into a plea deal with Paul Merhige. Indeed, I have worked beside the prosecutors handling this case, and know first-hand of their tireless dedication to secure justice for the victims of Paul Merhige's brutality. From a prosecution perspective, there are times in which pleading a case to a sentence less than the maximum is the most effective course of action toward achieving justice. In a Capital First Degree Murder trial, the prosecution will not only evaluate the likelihood of achieving a guilty verdict, but will also evaluate the likelihood of achieving a death sentence.
Make no mistake, the chance of Paul Merhige winning an acquittal at trial was extremely low. As previously reported, the defense at trial was going to hinge on a theory of insanity. In the State of Florida, a person is legally insane if: (1) the person had a mental infirmity, disease, or defect; and (2) because of the infirmity, disease, or defect, the person (a) did not know what he/she was doing or its consequences, or (b) although the person knew what he/she was doing and its consequences, the person did not know it was wrong. What is more, under Florida law, all persons are presumed to be sane. The defendant has the burden of proving the defense of insanity by clear and convincing evidence.
According to earlier reports of the case, Paul Merhige has a long history of mental illness and instability. Thus, the defense would likely have had little difficulty establishing the first prong of the insanity defense. However, the second prong would have proven exceptionally difficult. The State would have presented evidence of Paul Merhige's planning, preparation, and deliberation, all of which establish that Paul Merhige knew exactly what he was doing and the consequences of what he was doing. Furthermore, the State would have presented evidence that Paul Merhige, in an attempt to escape capture, fled the jurisdiction and hid out in a motel in the Florida Keys, illustrating that Paul Merhige knew that what he had done was wrong.
However, Capital First Degree Murder trials are a two-part process. Phase One of the Paul Merhige trial, also referred to as the guilt-phase, would likely have taken weeks. If, as is likely, the jury convicted Paul Merhige, the trial would enter Phase Two, also referred to as the sentencing-phase. During Phase Two, the State would attempt to persuade the jury to recommend a death sentence.
Arguments during Phase Two are framed by Florida Statute 921.141, which provides statutory aggravators and mitigators for the jury's consideration. In the case of Paul Merhige, both the State and the defense would have arguments that numerous aggravators and mitigators apply. In aggravation, the jury could find that Merhige was previously convicted of another capital felony or of a felony involving the use of violence; the defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons; the capital felony was a homicide and was committed in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification; and the victim was less than 12 years of age. In mitigation, the jury could find that the capital felony was committed while the defendant was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance; and the capacity of the defendant to appreciate the criminality of his or her conduct or to conform his or her conduct to the requirements of law was substantially impaired.
In the final analysis, a full trial would not have necessarily resulted in a death sentence. Even if the jury were to return a recommendation of death and the judge was willing to impose the recommendation, Paul Merhige would have appealed the sentence, dragging out litigation for years. Due to Paul Merhige's significant mental illness, it is more likely than not that a death sentence would not stand up to judicial review.