A convicted murderer who admitted killing his ex-girlfriend and three others last summer while on parole for a 1991 killing was sentenced Tuesday to death.
Jurors in Northampton County deliberated for fewer than two hours before sentencing 37-year-old Michael Eric Ballard to four death sentences. He pleaded guilty last month to the June 2010 stabbing deaths of 39-year-old Denise Merhi; her father, 62-year-old Dennis Marsh; her grandfather, 87-year-old Alvin Marsh Jr.; and 53-year-old neighbor Steve Zernhelt who heard their screams and rushed to help them.
Relatives of the victims erupted into shouts of “Yes!” at the decision, and Judge Edward Smith had to call the courtroom to order.
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District Attorney John Morganelli argued that a life sentence would be little more than “coming home” for Ballard, who was on parole in a 1991 murder at the time of the killings.
But defense attorney Michael Corriere said the jury would be putting to death a man with brain damage if they condemn Ballard. Corriere and another defense attorney declined to comment after the decision.
Morganelli, who ridiculed the brain damage defense as “nonsense,” told The Associated Press that he is pleased with the death sentences, noting they are the first in Northampton County in a quarter-century.
“He committed a gruesome crime, four deaths, including an 87-year-old man sitting in a wheelchair. It was my feeling from the outset this was a death penalty case. This crime was very egregious, and I think this jury did not buy any of the brain damage evidence that came in,” he said.
“He will have a difficult life on death row while his appeals work their way through the system,” Morganelli added. “Life in prison without parole, though a tough life, is a little easier than death-row life.”
Confidantes of Merhi told the AP that she and Ballard dated briefly about two years before. Ballard told police he “murdered (his) girlfriend and her family and then the neighbor,” according to court documents.
Outside the courtroom, relatives of the victims wept and hugged one another.
“We've gotten justice,” said Zernhelt's widow, Janet. “There's justice for our husband and father and for the Merhi family.”
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