Judge reviews testimony in Portland decapitation trial

Posted Jan. 20, 2011, at 2:58 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The judge in the trial of a Portland man who strangled his girlfriend, cut off her head and set her body afire in a ritualistic killing said Thursday that he needs several days to review testimony before determining whether or not the defendant was criminally responsible for his actions.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers clashed over the mental state of 29-year-old Chad Gurney in their closing arguments, with the defense arguing that Gurney was delusional and prosecutors telling the judge that Gurney understood what he was doing when he killed 18-year-old Zoe Sarnacki on May 25, 2009.

Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese told the judge that Gurney wasn’t suffering from a “major mental illness” that prevented him from knowing right from wrong. Instead, she said Gurney was “hurt and angry” that his girlfriend had slept with someone else. She also said he exaggerated or made up his symptoms.

“It’s almost a human defense mechanism to say, ‘That person must be crazy to do something like this,” she said. But in this case, the defendant was sane, she said.

Defense lawyer Sarah Churchill said Gurney was delusional at the time of the killing and said the prosecution was using a narrow definition of the legal standard of insanity. She noted, for example, that provisions in state law that can be applied to an insanity defense make no reference to “major mental illness.”

Gurney waived his right to a trial by jury, leaving his fate in the hands of Justice Roland Cole. Cole said he wouldn’t issue his verdict until next week at the earliest because of his schedule and the complexity of the testimony.

The trial in Cumberland County Superior Court didn’t focus on whether Gurney killed Sarnacki in his Portland apartment. Instead, it focused on his mental state when he strangled Sarnacki, mutilated her body and put her remains on a bed with a crucifix and other items before setting it on fire.

Four years earlier, Gurney was a lacrosse standout and a student at Liberty University in Virginia when the team’s 15-passenger van crashed in Alabama. Some said he was never the same after the crash, which caused a head injury. He eventually returned to Maine, where he lived off an insurance settlement.

Churchill said that the combination of Gurney’s head injury and withdrawal from medications used to treat chronic pain contributed to a psychotic break when he killed Sarnacki. She said he had been exhibiting strange behavior in the months leading to the killing, further suggesting that he was losing touch with reality.

On the night of the killing, Gurney felt he was being tested by his spiritual adviser — a man he had met in his travels — and that by killing Sarnacki he was sending her to a better place, Churchill said.

Marchese told the judge that Gurney was a troubled man but that his mental illness wasn’t severe enough to impair his ability to tell right from wrong. That was the consensus of the state’s expert witnesses, she said, urging the judge to reject the findings of a $500-per-hour, Harvard-trained psychiatrist who testified for the defense.

“He’s not a mentally healthy individual, but he’s not psychotic in a way that meets the … standard,” she said, referring to the “not criminally responsible” verdict sought by Gurney.

She also said Gurney started exaggerating his symptoms when he realized that living conditions at Riverview Psychiatric Center were much better than those at the Maine State Prison.

Marchese suggested Gurney lost his temper because Sarnacki had sex with someone else and didn’t want to join Gurney on his world travels. Gurney was due to leave two days after the killing for Thailand. She noted that Gurney told a friend that “Zoe hurt him. He was tired of being hurt, and he lost it.”

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