Merzbacher alleged that his lawyer in the original case, the late M. Cristina Gutierrez, violated his constitutional rights by never telling him about a deal which would have let him serve 10 years in exchange for a guilty plea.
Gutierrez, who died of a heart attack in 2004, had testified that she had a duty to tell Merzbacher about the potential plea but forgot to do so. She also said Merzbacher never, even after trial, admitted that he was guilty. Gutierrez's co-counsel, William Kanwisher, testified that he believed Gutierrez "was very confident that she could" persuade the jury to acquit Merzbacher.
The state court found that Gutierrez committed perjury in her testimony when she said she never told Merzbacher about the plea deal.
The lower federal court ruled that Merzbacher probably would have taken the deal. Stichel maintained that position in his argument to the appeals court. But Maryland Assistant Attorney General Edward Kelley countered that Merzbacher maintained his innocence throughout the case.
The judges agreed in their ruling that that was an important point, saying that Merzbacher's later testimony — that he would have "most graciously" accepted an offer — was a "self-serving assertion… subject to heavy skepticism."
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, whose office handled the case, welcomed the decision.
"We are gratified by the court's decision to reinstate the guilty verdict by the Baltimore City jury and the state court's determination that this dangerous child predator should spend the rest of his life behind bars," he said in a statement.
Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said his office was considering pursuing new cases against Merzbacher if the court had ruled he should have a chance to take the deal. Now, he said, that likely will not be necessary.
"With the sentence in place, Mr. Merzbacher essentially will die in prison," he said.
Speaking of the possibility of an appeal by Merzbacher, Matthew G. Kaiser, an appeals specialist in Washington, D.C., said the Supreme Court has shown some interest in cases like Merzbacher's, in which attorneys have been accused of failing to discuss plea negotiations with their clients.
Still, Kaiser said, Merzbacher should not hold out too much hope because the court only takes a fraction of the cases it is asked to review. "It's perhaps moved from really massively unlikely to nearly massively unlikely," he said.
For her part, Murphy said she is grateful for the court's decision but sorting through her feelings about it has been complex.
"People say, 'Move on' and 'This is a huge victory for the victims,' but it never really ever is. I am 51. I have been dealing with this since I was 11," she said. "It doesn't give me back my childhood. … It just keeps him from hurting other children. For me, that's the victory."