In a soft, wavering tone, Ashley Haley pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the death of 20-year-old Jennifer Horne yesterday morning.

The unexpected development came as the four-week trial for Desmond Maguire, 39, and his 22-year-old common-law wife Haley was set to open at the Nova Scotia Supreme Court in Halifax.

“The fact that one of the co-accused has pleaded guilty gives us some small amount of relief,” Horne’s step-uncle, Steve Andrews, told reporters.

Before jury selection began, Haley’s defence lawyer Kevin Burke told Justice Richard Coughlan his client wanted to plead guilty in the death of Horne, a Cole Harbour woman found dead in a Dartmouth apartment on New Year’s Eve 2007.

Haley is automatically handed a life sentence in prison with no eligibility of parole for 25 years.

A brief summary of Horne’s death was read to the court, but those details are under a publication ban because Maguire is proceeding to trial. He also faces a first-degree murder charge.

“Is your plea of guilty being made freely and voluntarily?” Coughlan asked Haley. “Yes sir,” she replied in a quiet voice.

Outside of court, Burke said his client has been considering the plea for some time. “A person pleading guilty to first-degree murder, that’s not a spur of the moment decision,” he told reporters. “It’s something that has to be pondered very, very carefully, and considered very, very carefully, not only by my client, but also by myself.”

No members of the Horne family were present for the guilty plea. A sentence hearing for Haley will take place on June 30.

Later that morning, jury selection began in the trial of Maguire. Jury selection is expected to last through today.