32 Year Cold Case Murder Trial Continues
The trial of an Industry man accused of brutally beating a woman to death in North Anson 32 years ago began today in Skowhegan.
He was considered the prime suspect in the 1980 murder of Rita St. Peter. Thursday in Skowhegan, 56-year-old Jay Mercier faced a jury charged with that crime.
During his opening statement, Deputy Attorney General Andrew Benson painted a 32-year-old picture of the crime for the jury. "He took a heavy instrument, perhaps a tire iron, and he brutally beat Rita St. Peter over the head and left her body there," Benson said.
Authorities say Mercier left St. Peter's body along a dirt road in North Anson that July night. The forensic technology needed to process the evidence police had didn't exist back in 1980, so that evidence, including bodily fluids taken from the victim and tire tracks left at the crime scene, languished in an evidence locker for more than three decades. That was until the case was looked at again, with modern forensics. Benson told the jury those bodily fluids produced two DNA profiles. One was the victim Rita St. Peter. "So the crime lab has an unknown male profile. And they have a prime suspect. A prime suspect they've had in the case for 30 years. Jay Mercier."
In 1980, then Maine State Trooper Barry Delong, along with Jim Ross from the Maine Warden Service, interviewed Mercier. Ross testified that Mercier said something during that interview that struck him as peculiar. "He made a comment to the affect, 'I'm not saying I did it, but if I did what would happen to me?'" Ross told the jury under driect examination.
In 2010, police re-interviewed Mercier, who has steadfastly maintained all along that he never met Rita St. Peter. This time, Detective Brian Jacques confiscated a cigarette butt Mercier threw on the ground during the interview. "The crime lab obtained a DNA profile from that cigarette butt. Mr. Merceir's DNA profile," Benson told the jury. "What do you suppose she found when she compared Mr. Mercier's DNA profile to the unknown male DNA profile? It was a match."
The Maine State Police Crime Lab in Augusta also looked at the tire impressions taken by now-retired Detective A.J. Carter 32 years ago who, in 1980, was a homicide investigator with the Maine State Police. Carter testified that he noticed the distinct tire tracks, took a Polaroid picture of the tracks and put it in his shirt pocket.
Those tire impressions photographed by Carter at the scene, were among the clearest impressions police found, but never made it to evidence,thanks to William Wright, the Somerset County Sheriff in 1980. According to Ross, he found the freshest set of tire tracks at the crime scene in a section of mud and attempted to divert law enforcement around the tracks to preserve them as evidence. Then Sheriff Wright showed up on the scene. Ross testified that he asked Wright to avoid driving on the mud where the tracks were. "He said was the high sheriff of Somerset County and he would go wherever he wanted and he drove right thought the tire tracks," Ross said.
The following day, Mercier gave police permission to search his truck and Detective Carter said he got to take a closer look at Mercier's tires. "They looked very similar to the photo I had in my pocket," Carter testified. "They were dissimilar from front to rear and I took ink impressions of all four tires." Those ink impressions were entered as evidence Thursday morning at Mercier's trial.
The tire impressions were also re-examined at the Maine State Police Crime Lab in Augusta. "Out of the eleven photos of apparent tire impressions, either in the dirt or in the mud, seven of them had a tread pattern that was identical to Mr. Mercier's front tires," Benson said Thursday.
Defense attorney John Martin argued that there's no new evidence in the case. "The fact that they now know Jay Mercier slept with Rita St. Peter and he lied about it, that's what's changed," Martin told the jury during his opening statement. "But that's not murder, ladies and gentlemen. They've had the same evidence for 32 years and they couldn't bring Jay Mercier in."
Martin told the jury the tire tracks are nothing new. "These were taken and compared at one time in 1980. July 5th, July 6th, July 7th, something happened where these were compared and set aside. They were set aside, it wasn't enough. It wasn't enough to bring Jay Mercier in here," Martin argued.
He also told the jury about a beer bottle found at the scene that was fingerprinted. "The beer bottle had a fingerprint on it. Wasn't Jay Merceir's fingerprint," Martin said.
The defense team is hoping the fact the case that sat cold for 32 years will mean reasonable doubt with the jury. "Over time, memories fade, witnesses will die, evidence can be corrupted or lost, crime scenes can change. All these things can happen over time."