Wednesday, April 23, 2014
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday denied the appeal of a Franklin County man who argued that he was wrongfully convicted of murder based on 32-year-old evidence.
Rita St. Peter, shown in an undated photo, was 20 when her body was found off Campground Road in Anson in 1980.
Morning Sentinel File Photo
Jay Mercier, now 58, remained free for more than three decades after the bludgeoned body of 20-year-old Rita St. Peter was found at the side of a dirt road in Anson on July 5, 1980. It wasn’t until 2011 that authorities used DNA evidence to charge him with her murder.
Mercier was found guilty in 2012 in Somerset County Superior Court and sentenced to serve 70 years in prison.
Mercier’s attorney, Hunter Tzovarras, argued before the supreme court last month that there were four reasons to vacate Mercier’s conviction. The court focused on only one of those issues in its unanimous decision: that the medical examiner who did the autopsy on St. Peter’s body was unavailable to testify at the trial.
Tzovarras argued that because Henry Ryan, the medical examiner at the time of the killing, was unavailable for the trial, Mercier was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to confront his accuser. Tzovarras said it was not enough that the state’s current chief medical examiner, Margaret Greenwald, testified to give her opinion of what caused St. Peter’s death based on the autopsy report.
“The admission of the testimony of a medical examiner who relies in part on the information obtained as a result of an autopsy or contained in an autopsy report completed by a non-testifying medical examiner is not a violation of the confrontation clause,” the court said in its nine-page decision, written by Justice Ellen Gorman.
Assistant Attorney General Lara Nomani argued for the court to uphold Mercier’s conviction, saying prosecutors never introduced Ryan’s autopsy report into evidence to be considered by the jury, and presented Greenwald’s testimony as only her opinion.
St. Peter, who lived in Anson, was intoxicated when she was last seen, shortly after midnight on July 5, 1980, leaving the Depot bar in Madison and staggering in the area of the bridge that spans the Kennebec River between Madison and Anson. She was found the next morning off Campground Road in Anson, bloodied from injuries to her head and chest. Authorities said she was sexually assaulted, beaten with a tire iron and run over.
Several witnesses had seen Mercier in the area of the bar shortly before St. Peter was last seen alive, and police confirmed that tire tracks left near St. Peter’s body were consistent with the tires on Mercier’s 1980 GMC truck.
But authorities did not charge him until 31 years later, when DNA testing on cigarette butts found at the end of Mercier’s driveway gave police probable cause to get a search warrant for a swab from Mercier’s mouth.
Tzovarras also argued that Mercier was wrongfully convicted because police overstepped their bounds when Mercier let them search his truck. Police not only searched it, but drove it to a service station to make inked prints from its tires. Tzovarras said police also violated Mercier’s rights by interrogating him for 90 minutes after Mercier said he didn’t want to speak with them.
And Tzovarras argued that, in closing arguments at Mercier’s trial, a prosecutor incorrectly said the tire tracks at the murder scene were definitively left by his truck.
The Supreme Judicial Court rejected those arguments.
“We conclude that Mercier’s remaining contentions also are not persuasive,” Gorman wrote in the decision.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: