Trial to focus on mental state of man who admits decapitating girlfriend

Chad Gurney writes on a pad as he sits in court Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 in Portland, Maine during his trial on charges of strangling his girlfriend 18-year-old Zoe Sarnacki then cutting off her head and setting her body on fire. Prosecutors are saying a 29-year-old Portland man was not insane when he strangled his girlfriend, cut off her head and set her body on fire nearly two years.  But defense attorney Sarah Churchill told a judge during Monday's opening statements that Chad Gurney was suffering from a mental disease or defect that prevented from appreciating the wrongfulness of his actions.  (AP Photo/Joel Page)
Joel Page | AP
Chad Gurney writes on a pad as he sits in court Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 in Portland, Maine during his trial on charges of strangling his girlfriend 18-year-old Zoe Sarnacki then cutting off her head and setting her body on fire. Prosecutors are saying a 29-year-old Portland man was not insane when he strangled his girlfriend, cut off her head and set her body on fire nearly two years. But defense attorney Sarah Churchill told a judge during Monday's opening statements that Chad Gurney was suffering from a mental disease or defect that prevented from appreciating the wrongfulness of his actions. (AP Photo/Joel Page)
Posted Jan. 10, 2011, at 6:18 p.m.
FILE - In this Jan. 28, 2009 file photo, Zoe Sarnacki is photographed walking during a snow storm in Portland, Maine.  There's no debate that Chad Gurney strangled Sarnaki in a rage, cut off her head and set her body on fire. But the question remains whether Gurney was insane at the time of the killing. Gurney goes on trial Monday, Jan. 10.  (AP Photo/Portland Press Herald, Gordon Chibroski, File)
Gordon Chibroski | AP
FILE - In this Jan. 28, 2009 file photo, Zoe Sarnacki is photographed walking during a snow storm in Portland, Maine. There's no debate that Chad Gurney strangled Sarnaki in a rage, cut off her head and set her body on fire. But the question remains whether Gurney was insane at the time of the killing. Gurney goes on trial Monday, Jan. 10. (AP Photo/Portland Press Herald, Gordon Chibroski, File)

PORTLAND, Maine — After his arrest, Chad Gurney calmly confessed to police how he had strangled his girlfriend, cut off her head and set her body on fire, a prosecutor said Monday.

Gurney, 29, is using an insanity defense in the May 25, 2009, ritualistic-style killing of 18-year-old Zoe Sarnacki in his Portland apartment.

But Assistant District Attorney Don Macomber said in his opening statement that Gurney wasn’t delusional or suffering hallucinations in the time leading up to or after the slaying, and that the evidence will prove he wasn’t insane.

“In fact, this won’t even be a close case for you, your honor,” Macomber told Justice Roland Cole.

Gurney’s trial is being heard by Cole after Gurney waived his right to a jury trial. It is expected to last up to two weeks.

The facts are not in dispute, but Gurney’s mental state at the time is. Each side plans to call mental health experts who are expected to give contrasting views on whether Gurney legally meets the insanity defense.

Gurney has admitted strangling Sarnacki in the bed of his third-floor apartment, then abusing her corpse and cutting off her head with three knives before dousing the body with gasoline and setting it on fire. He placed a crucifix between Sarnacki’s legs before driving to a motel in nearby Old Orchard Beach.

Gurney, who is charged with murder and arson, was dressed in an orange jail outfit and wore his hair in a ponytail at Monday’s hearing. His eyes looked down during much of the opening statements. At least three of Sarnacki’s relatives were in the courtroom for opening statements, but said they didn’t want to discuss the case.

Gurney was raised in central Maine and attended Liberty University in Virginia after high school. While at Liberty, he was severely injured in March 2005 when a school passenger van carrying the lacrosse team was rear-ended by another school van in Alabama and pushed into the path of a tractor-trailer.

He nearly died, nearly lost a leg and suffered a severe head injury. He later received a multimillion-dollar settlement.

After the accident, Gurney suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, defense attorney Sarah Churchill said. It was a “perfect storm” of conditions — his injuries, chronic pain, withdrawing from his medication and new ideas from friends — that prevented him from appreciating the wrongfulness of killing Sar-nacki, she said.

Gurney’s behavior was “totally based on delusion,” Churchill said.

But Macomber suggested Gurney had another motivation.

Gurney and Sarnacki met earlier in the year and had been dating for a short time, although not exclusively.

Macomber suggested that Gurney was angered by Sarnacki’s admission that she had slept with someone else while he was visiting a friend in British Columbia. She later refused his request to quit her job at a bagel shop and join him on a trip to Thailand, where he hoped to further his interest in Eastern religion.

Gurney suggested his anger had gotten the best of him when he called friends before his arrest and admitted what he had done, Macomber said.

“He told them she had done something that had hurt him and he was tired of being hurt, and he lost it,” Macomber said.

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