Byline: Gary V. Murray
WORCESTER - The one thing all 15 of them had in common was the charge they were facing - murder in the first degree.
Most are serving state prison sentences now after having had their day in court. Some were set free. Four were found guilty of murder, but only one was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to the mandatory term of life imprisonment without parole.
A total of 11 murder cases, some with multiple defendants, have been resolved so far this year in Worcester Superior Court with mixed results.
The cases of four of the 15 defendants were tried to a conclusion, with juries returning three convictions for second-degree murder and two for first-degree murder, both of those coming in a single case involving a double slaying. The statutory sentence for second-degree murder is life imprisonment with a possibility of parole in 15 years.
Ten other murder suspects were sentenced after prosecutors allowed them to plead guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years' imprisonment, or to accessory charges.
One case was dropped after a judge's suppression of the suspect's purported confession left prosecutors without enough evidence to go forward. A mistrial was declared in yet another case after the jury was unable to render a unanimous verdict.
While the efforts of prosecutors over the first nine months of the year led to only a handful of murder convictions, District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said he was satisfied that all of the cases were handled properly by his office given the cases' respective strengths and weaknesses. Decisions about whether to go to trial or enter into plea negotiations came only after he and Senior First Assistant District Attorney Daniel J. Bennett, who joined Mr. Early's staff in January, thoroughly assessed each murder case, the district attorney said.
"They are case-by-case and defendant-by-defendant specific," and the likelihood of success at trial must be carefully weighed, Mr. Early said.
Of the cases tried, only Christian Muller, 30, of Webster, was convicted of first-degree murder. A 12-member jury found him guilty of two counts of the crime March 14 in connection with a July 9, 2007, home invasion in a third-floor apartment at 25 West Main St., Dudley that left two people dead and a third seriously injured.
Mr. Muller, who was also found guilty of home invasion, armed assault with intent to murder and firearm charges, was sentenced...