An Industry man convicted of murdering a woman more than three decades ago will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.
It's been said the wheels of justice grind slowly. Friday in Skowhegan, after 32-years of waiting, the family of Rita St. Peter got their justice. "I never gave up hope. I never gave up my prayers, every day, hoping and praying," said Maxine Cross, St. Peter's sister.
On July 4, 1980, Jay Mercier lured the heavily intoxicated St. Peter, who was then 20-years-old, into his truck. Prosecutors convinced a jury that Mercier beat St. Peter to death with a blunt object, most likely a tire iron, before driving over her body.
Authorities examined the 32-year-old evidence with the help of modern science to prove their case. A big piece of that evidence came from Jay Mercier himself. While being interviewed by Maine State Police Detectives, Mercier was chain smoking and throwing his cigarette butts on the ground. Detective Bryant Jacques scooped up one of those cigarette butts and had it analyzed at the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory in Augusta. DNA from the cigarette was a close match to DNA extracted from the body of Rita St. Peter during the autopsy. So close, it paved the way for police to get a warrant to swab Mercier's cheek and get a better sample of his DNA. That DNA matched incriminating bodily fluids found on the victim. A jury found Mercier guilty of murder in September.
Friday, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson sought a life sentence for Mercier.
In order for a judge in Maine to impose a life sentence there must be either sexual abuse, or the killer's death producing conduct must exhibit extreme cruelty. The Maine Supreme Court recently ruled that in order to impose a life sentence based on extreme cruelty the actions of the killer must rise to the level or be tantamount to torture.
But convincing Judge John Nivison to give Mercier life in prison proved to be an uphill climb. Benson argued the state had proven Mercier had sexually assaulted St. Peter before killing her. "The torn bra strap, the dirt on her body, Mr. Mercier's semen in her rectum. Her underwear is pulled down just below her genital area," Benson said, recounting testimony offered at Mercier's trial.
Nivison pointed out that prosecutors couldn't charge Mercier with sexual assault since the statute of limitations had run out. He also questioned whether the evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt that a sexual assault had occurred the night St. Peter was murdered. "I think all of these things are compelling evidence of a sexual assault. But couldn't a reasonable fact finder conclude this was possibly some consensual sexual encounter gone horribly bad?" Nivison asked, challenging Benson.
Benson also tried to argue Mercier's actions that night did in fact rise to the level of torture, specifically the fact he ran over her body. "The beating in and of itself amounts to extreme cruelty. The evidence suggests Mercier didn't let it go at that. In a final act of cruelty he drove over her body," Benson said.
Benson also pointed out Mercier's extensive criminal record. Mercier has seven convictions for operating under the influence and one conviction for domestic violence assault after an incident with his ex-wife back in 2003.
Defense attorney John Martin argued a life sentence would be too harsh. He asked for a sentence of 25-40 years, saying nothing in this case rose above the level of a garden variety homicide. "I would suggest to the court that there was no torture here your honor," Martin said.
Several of St. Peter's family members also spoke in court. Jay Mercier sat stone faced as Rita St. Peter's daughter, Terri Folkes, who was only 2 years old when her mother was murdered, spoke directly to him in a prepared statement read aloud by state victims advocate Laura Gallant while Folkes stood next to her sobbing. "All the memories, all the milestones, all the birthdays, all the special moments a mother and daughter should share you robbed me of," Folkes statement said. "Do I laugh like her? Do I talk like her? Do I smile the same? These are questions I can never have answered. It will always be in my mind how scared my mother was and why you never cared." Mercier had no reaction.
Judge Nivison said he weighed the victim impact heavily before pronouncing sentence. "It is a permanent loss with it's accompanying pain. And to attempt to describe the loss would be irresponsible as I suspect it is many ways indescribable," Nivison said to the large contingent of family members assembled in the courtroom. "The court will sentence and does sentence Mr. Mercier to a period of incarceration of 70 years."
Although the sentence for Jay Mercier is 70 years, he'll likely serve just over half that. The amount of "good time" inmates can earn to shorten their sentences has varied over the years and was significantly more generous toward inmates back in 1980 when Mercier killed Rita St. Peter. Meaning the sentence falls under the more lenient guidelines in place in 1980 than the longer prison sentence he would be compelled to serve had Mercier committed his crime today. "So rather than serving about 85% of his sentence, he'll probably serve about 55-60% of his sentence," Benson said outside the courthouse. "Now with that being said, he'll still serve 40 years in prison which means it's extremely unlikely if not almost impossible that he'll ever be released from prison."
To the family of Rita St. Peter, including her sister Maxine Cross, knowing Jay Mercier will spend the rest of his life in prison provides comfort and closure. "Now I know Rita's looking down this day and saying it's been done. Justice has prevailed and I can rest in peace."
Convicted Killer Gets 70 Years in Cold Case