Man pleads guilty in 2012 triple slaying in Ascension Parish

A man pleaded guilty to murder Tuesday for his role in a deadly 2012 robbery in which intruders slashed the throats of a Gonzales couple and a visiting family member while stealing a safe containing gold coins

Michael Aikens, 37, 16460 La. 930, Prairieville, pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder in exchange for three automatic life sentences without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence.

Aikens’ formal sentencing date has not been set but public defender Elton Richey Jr. said it would likely be in 30 days.

He declined to elaborate on the reasons for the plea. Aikens avoided a possible death sentence had he been convicted as charged at trial.

Aikens was accused of participating in the slayings of Robert Irwin Marchand, 74; his wife, Shirley Marchand, 72; and his stepson, Douglas Dooley, 50, of Cross Plains, Tenn., in a home-invasion robbery late on Feb. 17, 2012 or early on Feb. 18, 2012.

Aikens and four others stole $100,000 in gold and other valuable coins from a safe in Robert Marchand’s house in a rural corner of Ascension on Babin Road near Gonzales, investigators have said.

The Marchands and Dooley were found with their throats slashed and signs of being beaten. Robert Marchand and Dooley were dead. Shirley Marchand died March 2, 2012.

The plea Tuesday avoided what prosecutors said was likely a month of jury selection, a monthlong trial and years of appeals if Aikens had been given the death penalty.

Jury selection in the state case had begun Monday at the federal courthouse in Lafayette but no jurors had been selected yet, prosecutors said.

Judge Alvin Turner Jr., of the 23rd Judicial District Court in Ascension, had moved jury selection to Lafayette because of the pretrial publicity of the gruesome killings.

Turner planned to hold the trial in Ascension Parish once a Lafayette jury was seated.

As part of the plea Tuesday, Babin said, Aikens did not agree to testify in the trials of any of his four co-defendants.

Richey said Aikens also will be allowed to appeal Turner’s ruling in August not to suppress Aikens’ two admissions to sheriff’s investigators last year.

Among other challenges, Aikens’ attorneys had claimed he is mentally retarded and was unable to waive his Miranda right to remain silent.

In court papers, Aikens also planned to raise his mental retardation in the penalty phase if he were convicted on the first-degree counts. Execution of mentally retarded persons is unconstitutional.

Aikens did not dispute his fitness to stand trial.

Assistant District Attorney Robin O’Bannon said prosecutors had no intention of offering Aikens a plea — she said prosecutors had a good case against him — but his attorney called Sunday about the offer.

“I contacted the victims. We discussed everything, and the victims wanted us to accept that and so we did,” said O’Bannon, the lead prosecutor.

The murders sent shock waves through the community. Robert Marchand was a lifelong resident of Gonzales, the owner of a then-defunct housing-moving business and a regional figure in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Louisiana. Shirley Marchand had worked in an area funeral home.

Aikens had worked for Robert Marchand more than a decade earlier in his house-moving business and knew about his employer’s coin collection, investigators have said.

Babin said no trial dates have been set for the other four defendants.

“Bernard James will be next,” Babin said.

James, 26, 36344 Lorena Drive, Prairieville, also faces three counts of first-degree murder and is one of the three remaining defendants against whom prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty, court filings show.

James’ defense attorneys, Susan Jones and Stephen Haedicke, were not immediately available for comment Tuesday.