Insanity defense may be sought in Pa. murder of 4

/ Source: The Associated Press

Attorneys for a man charged with having killed four people in eastern Pennsylvania last summer while on parole for a murder conviction say they may seek an insanity defense at trial or as a reason to argue against the death penalty if he is convicted.

Michael Eric Ballard, 37, is charged with four counts of homicide in the June 26 slayings of his ex-girlfriend, Denise Merhi, 39; her father, Dennis Marsh, 62; her grandfather, Alvin Marsh Jr., 87; and neighbor Steve Zernhelt, 53, who had heard screams and tried to help.

Ballard was on parole on a 15- to 30-year sentence following his conviction in a 1991 murder in Allentown.

Defense attorneys said in a legal filing Friday that a preliminary examination indicates that their client may have an organic brain dysfunction, although further tests such as brain image scanning are needed.

"We're looking at all possibilities," defense attorney Michael Corriere said. "It's just a notice that it's something we're examining."

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli has called the slayings a "revenge killing" because he said Ballard had learned that Merhi was involved with another man. He said he does not think Ballard's attorneys will use an insanity defense.

"I don't think he's insane or has ever been insane," Morganelli said. "I can assure you we will be refuting all of these kinds of defenses at trial."

The defense is also seeking to have Ballard's statements to investigators and his conviction barred from the trial. Morganelli argues that similarities between the two cases help establish "intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity and/or absence of mistake or accident" in the Northampton killings.

Defense attorneys also said they want a jury chosen from another county, something Morganelli has said he does not oppose.