Possible insanity defense for accused Thanksgiving killer

By Chuck Weber - bio | email

WEST PALM BEACH, FL (WFLX) - Legal experts say they expect lawyers for Paul Michael Merhige to explore an insanity defense.

Assistant State Attorneys Aleathea McRoberts and Terri Skiles are slated to prosecute Merhige. And Public Defender Carey Haughwout, along with Assistant Public Defender Dan Eisinger, are expected to defend him. The McRoberts/Skiles team and Haughwout became known for arguing both sides of the Dunbar Village rape case.

Merhige-- accused of the killings of four family members Thanksgiving night at a home in Jupiter-- has a mental health history, has taken medication, and has experienced conflict with his family, according to police and family members.

Prominent West Palm Beach criminal defense lawyer Michael Salnick says the accused has the burden of proving insanity, and it can be a difficult sell to jurors.

In the Merhige case, prosecutors can also point to the suspect's alleged actions before and after the murders.

"Did he change his name?," Salnick posed. "Did he take money out of the bank? Are those things indicative of someone who is legally insane, or are those things indicative of someone who pre-meditated and knew what they were doing?"

So far Merhige is represented by the public defender's office.

Merhige's mental state could also have an impact in whether prosecutors seek the death penalty. Monday the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office said it will send the Merhige case to its death penalty review committee. State Attorney Michael McAuliffe will make the final decision on seeking death.

Under state law, the list of "aggravating" factors jurors consider in death penalty cases includes a victim being less than 12 years old, or vulnerable. 6-year old Makayla Sitton was one of those killed at her parent's home Thanksgiving night.

But jurors can also consider "mitigating" factors, like Merhige's mental problems.

"It's ultimately going to come back to the issue of mental health," said attorney Salnick. "In phase one, mental health as to whether he was insane at the time of the crime. If there is a phase two, whether or not he deserves capitol punishment based upon the fact he still had the same mental disability."

Salnick says he expects prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Merhige.