In a Norristown courtroom Tuesday morning for the second day of his trial, Julius Wise dabbed away tears and pleaded guilty to the murder of a man he never met.
In a series of terse answers that brought his trial to an abrupt end, Wise, 34, admitted that he helped plan the robbery and supply three men who killed beauty-supply retailer Robert Chae during a 2009 Montgomery Township home invasion.
He offered no explanation for the plea.
Lawyers' opening statements had been followed Monday by testimony from Chae's widow and daughter. Wise started Tuesday by accepting a plea deal he had repeatedly refused: a third-degree murder conviction for aiding the attackers in the fatal January 2009 home invasion. The plea leaves him facing a maximum 20- to 40-year prison sentence, but the second-degree murder charge for which he was on trial carried a mandatory life term.
Wise's attorney, Leigh Narducci, said he had suggested the guilty plea.
"I thought the risk was too great that the jury would come back with a second-degree murder verdict," Narducci said outside the courtroom after the hearing.
Wise, of Frankford, was the last of seven people charged with murder for the attack on Chae's Montgomery Township home to face charges. All but one were convicted.
The invasion had been planned as a robbery, based on a claim from Chae's nephew Angelo Shin that up to $100,000 cash was in a safe, but the three men who stormed the house ended up brutalizing the family. Chae's head was duct-taped, and the narrow opening through which he breathed became obstructed with blood as he was beaten. Chae, 58, suffocated in his garage.
After the slaying, detectives tracked the assailants through cell-phone records and confessions, including Shin's explanation of the robbery scheme.
Shin and the two drivers, Robert Eatman and Sybil White, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder in 2009 and testified during the January trial of the three accused home invaders. Two were convicted on the strength of evidence including DNA and cell-phone records.
The only man acquitted, Karre Pitts, could not be linked to the scene through phone records or DNA, prosecutors said.
Assistant District Attorney Todd Stephens said he had been pushing for Wise to plead to the reduced charges, since his role in the attack was auxiliary. Wise never met Chae and was at home recovering from a hip replacement at the time of the attack, but prosecutors said he had held a planning session for the robbery, lent his cell phone, and provided other help, including hiding evidence.
"It is the right resolution for the Chae family," Stephens said, "and it is the right resolution under the law, given his limited involvement with this crime."
The Chaes did not attend Tuesday's court session. Reached by phone at their Center City beauty-supply store, Richard Chae said the family was still reeling from his father's loss. He and his sister had forestalled plans to go back to school, and the family is "just getting by" without its patriarch, he said.
Wise's conviction, he said, was welcome news.
"I wish all the bad people were in jail for life or worse," Richard Chae said. "We're less one family member, and it's drastically affecting us."
Montgomery County Court Judge Thomas P. Rogers set no sentencing date Tuesday.