Matters of God and forgiveness gripped a Michigan courtroom this week, transforming a sinister murder-for-hire case into an unlikely display of mercy and restraint.
Jacob Merfeld, 27, whose 21-year-old wife, Julia, was caught scheduling and financing his murder in April, stood before a judge during her sentencing hearing Tuesday and called her "a godly woman" and "wonderful wife." Appearing stern and a bit stricken, he said his wife's faith had only grown since her crime, and that she should be allowed to spend "every second that she can" with their two children, ages 4 and 2.
Judge William Marietti balanced Merfeld's request for leniency with the state's minimum sentencing guidelines, ordering Julia to serve at least five years and eight months in prison, a year below the most severe minimum sentence that Michigan allows.
"I know that this is a crime that is on the top of the list of the most, I guess, evil, non-godly things you could probably do," Merfeld testified. But, he said, "I wholeheartedly forgive my wife for all she has done in this act of hatred."
Julia Merfeld, of Muskegon, was arrested in April after she asked an undercover detective posing as a hit man to kill her husband on a Thursday "because that's the day that I work."
The chilling details of her request, unveiled in videos secretly recorded by police and provided to the news media, including MLive.com, suggest a careless, childlike woman seeking a clean and lucrative escape from an unhappy marriage. She proposed paying the undercover cop $50,000 out of her husband's $400,000 life insurance payout.
She planned the murder "as if she was ordering groceries or ordering something off the menu," Muskegon County prosecutor D.J. Hilson said during the sentencing hearing.
Merfeld scrolled through her smartphone decorated with a yellow Batman logo as she offered the undercover cop his choice of dates for the murder.
"It was easier than divorcing him," she told the cop assuredly in explaining her rationale. "I didn't have to worry about the judgment of my family, I didn't have to worry about breaking his heart, all that stuff like this."
She giggled as she asked the cop to kill Jacob outside her home -- "'cause it would be messy in the house," she said. She also said she worried that disguising the murder as a burglary-gone-wrong might scare away a friend who she hoped would move in with her after her husband was killed. "I don't want to live there by myself afterwards," she said.
Merfeld quoted the Bible during her sentencing hearing, and promised that her repentance was sincere. "My tears are not for your pity, my honor. My tears are for remorse." She shook when she mentioned the possibility of her crime having been carried out.
Her lawyer, Muskegon public defender Joseph Fisher, said he was familiar with the family's faith from what Merfeld had told him before about sin and forgiveness, but that he was still "impressed" by Jacob's very public pardon.
"I'm married myself, and I don't know how I would react in that situation," Fisher said.
Fisher said that as ugly as Merfeld's plot sounded on video, the recording also reveals a shaky, naive woman who was in over her head.
"This is a serious case because it's a solicitation to murder, my goodness." But, he continued, in his job as public defender, "I see man's worst inhumanity to man. Is this one of the worst cases that calls for the stiffest sentence? Do we need to be protected from this woman? I would have to say no."
Merfeld sobbed and stared searchingly at the man she would have had killed as he forgave her in court.