Judge rejects insanity defense in decapitation trial; Portland man convicted of murder

Posted Feb. 04, 2011, at 12:56 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 05, 2011, at 6:35 a.m.
Chad Gurney
Joel Page | AP
Chad Gurney

PORTLAND, Maine — A Portland man who strangled his girlfriend, cut off her head and set her body on fire was convicted Friday of murder and arson by a judge who rejected the defendant’s insanity defense.

Defendant Chad Gurney knew what he was doing when he killed Zoe Sarnacki and set a fire to try to cover the crime, said Justice Roland Cole, who described the killing as “domestic violence homicide.”

Gurney, covered in tattoos and with his black hair pulled back, gave no visible reaction when the judge pronounced his guilty verdicts in Cumberland County Superior Court. Without speaking to his attorneys, he was escorted from the courtroom by several deputies and court security officers.

No sentencing date was set.

Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese said the judge made the correct ruling because under Maine law an insanity defense is reserved for “the sickest of the sick.”

“Chad Gurney is not a well man. Nobody has said that,” Marchese said outside the courthouse. “But he didn’t kill Zoe Sarnacki because he was delusional or psychotic.”

Prosecutors and defense lawyers clashed over the 29-year-old Gurney’s mental state during two weeks of testimony last month. A defense expert testified that Gurney was suffering from delusions while prosecutors insisted Gurney understood what he was doing when he killed 18-year-old Sarnacki on May 25, 2009.

No one disputed that Gurney committed the grisly crime.

Sarnacki was killed two days before Gurney was to leave for Thailand as part of a spiritual quest. The judge found that he head-butted her, strangled her, had sex with her corpse, severed her head and then set fire to her body. A crucifix and other personal items were found on and around her body.

The defense contended Gurney’s mental health problems started at Liberty University in Virginia when his lacrosse team’s 15-passenger van crashed in 2005. He suffered a concussion and other injuries that led to 20 surgeries. He eventually returned to Maine to live off an insurance settlement.

The defense contended the combination of Gurney’s head injury and withdrawal from medications contributed to a psychotic break. Prosecutors contended Gurney was simply angry because Sarnacki had sex with another man while he was out of state, and that he was seeking revenge.

Gurney told a friend after the killing Sarnacki hurt him and that he had “lost it.” But over time Gurney told mental competency examiners about his feeling that he was facing a spiritual test on the day of the killing, and that by killing Sarnacki he was somehow setting her free.

Kathy Kosnow, the victim’s aunt, said it was insulting to family members to have to listen to testimony that Gurney thought he was doing something good by killing Sarnacki.

“The insult to injury that he destroyed her body and we couldn’t even give her a kiss goodbye, now that’s just terrible,” Kosnow said outside the courthouse. She said Sarnacki’s mother was too emotionally distraught to attend the brief hearing in which the judge announced his verdict.

The defense team agreed that it was a difficult trial.

“First and foremost, our condolences to the Sarnacki family and their loss. This is a horrible case all around,” said defense lawyer Robert LeBrasseur. He said Gurney has apologized to the family.

LeBrasseur said he wasn’t necessarily surprised by the judge’s verdict. “The evidence was there and the judge could have made a ruling based on the evidence, either way. It’s deciding which facts you want to accept, and which facts you don’t want to accept,” LeBrasseur said.

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