Montgomery County prosecutors have asked the families of three victims in a notorious Silver Spring murder-for-hire case to decide whether the alleged hit man, whose 1995 conviction was recently overturned, should stand trial again or be offered a plea bargain.

Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said he expects to hear by mid-January whether the families want James Edward Perry, of Detroit, to be retried in the deaths of 8-year-old Trevor Horn; his mother, Mildred Horn; and the boy's nurse, Janice Roberts Saunders.

If the families want to spare themselves the emotional toll of another trial, Gansler said, prosecutors would offer Perry the chance to plead guilty to the murders in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. If convicted at trial, Perry would again face the death penalty, Gansler said.

Perry's attorney, William Jordan Temple, said last night that he "certainly would look forward" to such a plea offer.

"I think anyone faced with the possibility of a death penalty considers an offer of life," Temple said. "I don't think anyone can gratuitously go to trial. Of course, the decision is up to the client."

If the families insist on another trial, former Montgomery state's attorney Robert L. Dean, who lost the county's chief prosecutor job to Gansler in 1998, has agreed to return to Montgomery to prosecute the case, Gansler said. Dean, who prosecuted the case when he worked in Montgomery, currently works as an assistant state's attorney in Prince George's County.

Perry was sentenced to death after being convicted of working as a contract killer for Lawrence Horn, Trevor's father. Horn is serving three life sentences for soliciting the murders to inherit his son's $1.7 million trust fund from a medical malpractice suit.

Perry's conviction was overturned last month, after Maryland's highest court ruled 4 to 3 that a 22-second taped conversation between Perry and Horn that prosecutors had played at his trial had been recorded illegally and thus was inadmissible in court.

Any retrial would not be held until summer or fall and then maybe in Frederick County because of defense concerns over pretrial publicity, Gansler said. A plea offer could be made within a month, he said.

Prosecutors told the victims' families that a trial always has the potential to end in an acquittal and that the prosecution's evidence and witnesses' memories have gathered dust in the past five years. Any conviction also could result in a sentence of life without parole instead of death, he said.

But the families also "don't think [Perry] deserves to live," Gansler said, and a lengthy and emotional retrial would be the only route to the death penalty.

"As long as I'm assured [Perry] will never be a free man again," Gansler said, "I think it's up to the families to make that decision."