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Desmond Maguire, 39, changed his plea as his trial was underway in Halifax. ((CBC file))

Jennifer Horne's relatives sobbed as the man charged with murdering the 20-year-old Nova Scotia woman in 2007 suddenly pleaded guilty Friday.

Desmond Maguire, 39, changed his plea as his first-degree murder trial was set to continue for a fifth day  in Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

For Horne's family, the guilty plea is a big relief after 2½ years of gruelling court proceedings and graphic evidence.

"We're just so pleased we don't have to go through the rest of this trial," Steve Andrews, a family spokesman and Horne's step-uncle, told reporters outside court.

"Every day in court, at the end of the day, we'd say, 'Maybe, maybe tomorrow morning he'll come in and plead guilty.'"

Horne was found dead on Dec. 31, 2007, her body rolled up in a piece of carpet in a closet at the Dartmouth apartment that Maguire shared with his pregnant girlfriend, Ashley Haley.

Co-accused Haley, 22, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder on Monday.

During Maguire's trial this week, the jury heard that Horne disappeared after going on a date with Maguire — a co-worker at a seniors' home  — on Dec. 29, 2007.

Crown attorney William Delaney said Maguire was fond of Horne, which upset Haley and was causing friction in their relationship. Haley also admitted to being jealous of Horne, during interviews with police.

Maguire and Haley already had one child and Haley was five months pregnant at the time Horne was killed.

On Thursday, the jury saw a videotape of a police interview with Maguire.

"I'm scared …. You're probably going to arrest me in 10 seconds," Maguire told the officers on Dec. 31, 2007. "Jennifer's at my place. She's in the closet. She's not alive."

Dr. Matthew Bowes, Nova Scotia's chief medical examiner, testified that Horne's head, hands and feet were bound in duct tape.

Bowes said Thursday the first layer of tape covered Horne's mouth and eyes, the middle one had holes cut for her nose and ears, and the top sealed off all of her airways.

Plea came as 'surprise'

The medical examiner testified that her body was badly bruised and there were cuts from her head to her lower limbs.

"The number of bruises were so numerous they blend together," he told the jury.

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Robert Rideout, Desmond Maguire's lawyer, says he believed his client was remorseful. ((CBC))

Bowes said the worst injuries were to her vagina, but she ultimately suffocated.

Delaney said he was prepared for another day of evidence when Maguire suddenly changed his plea.

"We certainly didn't expect it this morning," he said. "We know that something like this can happen at any time, but it was very much a surprise to us."

Delaney said he was pleased with the conclusion and the fact that the family would be spared a long trial.

"We see a fair number of murder cases, but the facts of this case are particularly horrific," he told reporters outside the courtroom.

Robert Rideout, Maguire's lawyer, said seeing the videotaped interview with police may have had an effect on his client's decision to change his plea.

"We had some discussion after the hearing yesterday," Rideout told reporters Thursday. "We spoke about things, and I said that I didn't want him to make a decision after that, to sort of sleep on it."

Family reacts

He said he believed Maguire was remorseful.

"A lot of it, he didn't remember. He doesn't remember some of this," said Rideout. "My observation was that he was sincerely remorseful for this."

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Steve Andrews, Jennifer Horne's step-uncle and a spokesman for the Horne family, said it was a relief to hear the guilty plea. ((CBC))

Cries could be heard throughout the courtroom when Maguire stood before the judge and said that he wanted to plead guilty.

A conviction of first-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence with no eligibility for parole for 25 years.

Maguire and Haley will be back in court on June 30 for a sentencing hearing.

Andrews said the family would take the next few weeks to prepare victim impact statements to be read at the hearing.

"If and when either of the murderers — I can call them that, now — are applying for parole, there will be family members there, 25 years in the future, and those victim impact statements will be there," he told reporters.

Andrews said he thought Horne would want her parents, her brother and the rest of her family to try to move ahead.

"She would just want people to rebuild their lives and try to find some little bits of happiness in the future," he said.

With files from The Canadian Press