Stephen Headley was expecting to be sentenced Wednesday to 30 years without parole after admitting that he killed a South Jersey softball star, 22, during an argument two years ago.
Superior Court Judge James W. Palmer Jr. had said in June that he likely would hand out that sentence if the Florence Township man pleaded guilty to murder in the Sept. 13, 2010, stabbing death of Nicole Ayres.
But after Ayres' family and friends sent out a flurry of letters urging the judge to give Headley a life sentence, the judge changed his mind.
The Burlington County prosecutor also requested a tougher sentence, noting that the Headley, 30, has a 2006 child-endangerment conviction and that he had stabbed Ayres more than 30 times with a pocket knife before leaving her body in a Southampton soccer field.
On Wednesday, Palmer rejected the guilty plea, giving Headley the choice of going to trial or agreeing to a longer prison term. Thirty years is the minimum for a murder conviction. The judge set a hearing for Dec. 3.
"Thirty years on a murder is not an uncommon sentence. We'll even offer that to a defendant in plea negotiations," said Burlington County Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi, explaining the judge's initial decision. "But I don't think [the judge] anticipated the outcry from the family and our office that it needs to be more in this case."
Bernardi said a life sentence would mean Headley would have to serve 571/2 years without parole. The guilty plea also might be renegotiated to give Headley 40 or more years without parole, he said. Only in special cases, such as in the murder of a child or a police officer, may defendants receive a sentence with no possibility of parole, he said.
Cedric Edwards, Headley's public defender, said the judge rejected the plea because "it's a high-profile case, and there was pressure, quite frankly, from the victim's family."
Ayres, of Westville, was an All-South Jersey standout at Deptford High School and the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year in 2007 at Fordham University.
Edwards said that, in recent weeks, more than 20 letters and e-mails had been sent to the judge.
About 10 family members and friends of Ayres attended the hearing Wednesday in Mount Holly. In an earlier interview, her father, Rick, said that a life sentence would be more appropriate than 30 years. "My life sentence," he said, "is my heart, my pain . . . not having my daughter here."