WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – A South Florida man pleaded guilty Thursday to gunning down four relatives during a 2009 Thanksgiving massacre in a deal that will spare him the death penalty in exchange for seven consecutive life sentences.
Family members wept in court, calling Paul Merhige a monster and describing daily life that became unbearable after he killed their loved ones in a rampage that sparked a massive manhunt. Merhige was found about a month later at a motel in the Florida Keys.
Jim Sitton, whose 6-year-old daughter Makayla was killed in the rampage, fell to his knees, begging Judge Joseph Marx not to accept a deal. Deputies surrounded Sitton and ordered him off the ground. Later, the father held locks of his daughter's hair and tearfully shared the void in his life. His wife, Muriel Sitton, said she would never forget seeing Makayla's body on the stretcher, never to hear her daughter's voice again.
"If the death penalty isn't for this guy, who's the death penalty for?" Jim Sitton said after the hearing, standing by family members including his wife, who is five months pregnant with a girl.
The victims were Merhige's twin sisters, one of whom was pregnant; his aunt, who was Muriel Sitton's mother; and Makayla, who had been tucked into bed not long before. Others were hurt, including one relative who spent three months in a coma.
"This killer you see in the courtroom today is not the man that was in our home that night. (He) was a cold blooded killer without remorse without mercy just gunned down of our family members and would have killed more of us had we not escaped out of the house," Muriel Sitton said.
Some 16 people were at the home Nov. 26, 2009, including a last-minute guest, Muriel Sitton's cousin Paul Merhige. They enjoyed a traditional dinner and then gathered in a horseshoe around their brown Baldwin piano to sing and dance, mostly church songs. As the night wore on, police say Merhige left the house and returned with a gun.
Court documents show Merhige considered killing himself after the shootings. He ordered an assisted suicide handbook in the days after the killings. He also began loading up on supplies needed to kill himself, including helium, plastic bags, scissors, duct tape and tubing. He never followed through, and was arrested about a month later in the Keys.
Jim Sitton said the deal was hastily thrown together and that he only learned about it two days ago.
The plea agreement comes after Merhige's attorneys filed a notice signaling they may use an insanity defense. As part of the deal, the defense withdrew that notice.
State Attorney Michael McAuliffe said the decision was difficult as he considered victims who wanted a resolution so they could rebuild their lives, and other victims who felt anything short of an execution was injustice. His office was seeking the death penalty for Merhige, but withdrew that and accepted the plea deal after Merhige's attorneys recently approached them with an offer. McAuliffe said the majority of victims and relatives agreed with the decision.
"I have taken all these deeply held beliefs and sometimes conflicting wishes and sentiment into account in agreeing to this resolution," McAuliffe said.
He said cost was not a factor, but said he did consider the prolonged litigation that often accompanies death penalty cases.
During the hearing, Merhige's parents said they supported the deal, but Carole Merhige said her life was ruined after losing her two daughters and a son who is now in jail.
The judge said the life sentences were the strongest he could impose after the death penalty was taken off the table.
Patrick Knight, whose wife was killed, said he agreed with the plea, but called Merhige a fat loser who was jealous and angry.
Sitton said he dropped to his knees before the judge because "they listened to the murderer's plea. I thought maybe if I dropped to my knees someone would listen to me."
Marx said postponing the hearing wouldn't change his analysis and acknowledged the victims' sufferings.
After the hearing, the Sittons said they look forward to the birth of their new baby and will continue to honor Makayla's memory. They started a foundation bearing her name to carry on her love of dance and music. An annual concert has been started in her honor.
"We're having a girl but it's very bittersweet ... there will always be someone missing," Muriel Sitton said.