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Courts
Jonathan Miano, The Times

CROWN POINT — A jury was sent home Tuesday after a murder trial ended in a last-minute plea bargain.

Melvin R. Bruce, 45, was scheduled to appear at trial this week on allegations he fatally shot his girlfriend, Temica Spencer, Aug. 29 at their home in the 500 block of Mount Street in Gary.

Bruce pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon to voluntary manslaughter, a level 2 felony, as part of a plea agreement with the Lake County Prosecutor's office.

The state agreed to dismiss a murder charge and a firearm sentencing enhancement.

Voluntary manslaughter, a level 2 felony offense, is typically punishable by 10 to 30 years in prison, but the parties agreed Bruce would only face 10 to 18 years.

The defendant allowed a moment to pass before he admitted he was guilty. He turned and stared solemnly at his family after entering his plea.

Judge Salvador Vasquez accepted the guilty plea and entered a judgment of conviction. The jury, which was convened Monday but had not heard evidence, was brought into the courtroom and told of the decision.

The jury was then disbanded.

Bruce admitted in the plea agreement he shot Spencer, 31, after an argument in the couple's bedroom.

Spencer retrieved a knife from the bedroom, and Bruce grabbed his handgun, the agreement states.

Bruce said he was “frightened for his life” when Spencer returned to their room, but that fear did not rise to the level “required to establish self defense,” the agreement states.

He admitted he shot Spencer in the chest during “sudden heat,” which caused the woman's death.

Vasquez told the jurors it was rare for a guilty plea to be entered after jury selection — he could not remember when it last happened.

Bruce was represented by Paul Stracci and Michael Woods.

Stracci told Vasquez it was an “extraordinarily difficult decision” for Bruce, but his client ultimately determined he wanted “certainty.”

He said after the hearing his client took the plea bargain because it meant the murder, and a firearm sentencing enhancement, would be dismissed.

“It was as difficult a decision as I've seen a client make in 20 years,” Stracci said.

Murder is punishable by 45 to 60 years in prison. A firearm enhancement adds an additional five to 20 years to the sentence.

Bruce is scheduled to be sentenced March 29.

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Courts and social justice reporter

Steve covers Lake County courts and social justice issues for The Times. The UW-Milwaukee graduate joined The Times in 2016 after reporting on criminal justice in New Mexico and Wisconsin.