PORTLAND, Maine — A Maine lawmaker says he’ll propose legislation to give judges more sentencing flexibility in murder cases after a man who strangled his girlfriend — then decapitated her and burned the body — couldn’t be given a life sentence because of strict sentencing guidelines.
State Rep. Michael Celli said he will introduce the bill at the request of a Brewer woman who was family to Zoe Sarnacki.
Sarnacki, an 18-year-old Portland woman, was killed by Chad Gurney in May 2009. He was sentenced last month to 50 years for murder and another 10 years for arson.
Gurney was the poster child for a life sentence, said Laurie Morris, Sarnacki’s aunt. Even though Gurney will either die in prison or be very old when he gets out, Morris said something is not right if the judge was precluded from sentencing him to life.
“I’m doing this for myself and for Zoe and for other families, so if this happens again, at least the person won’t be able to get out of jail,” said Morris. “Chad Gurney, I don’t care if he’s 79 years old or 100, he can still get out. He’s a dangerous, cold calculated murderer. It’s the principle of the thing.”
In sentencing Gurney, Superior Court Justice Roland Cole said he couldn’t recall another case in Maine that compared to Gurney’s “horrific” actions.
But he was bound by a 1990 Maine supreme court ruling saying a judge can’t impose a life sentence unless the murder was accompanied by “aggravating circumstances” such as premeditation, multiple deaths, lengthy criminal background, killing a law enforcement officer or “torture, sexual abuse or other extreme cruelty.”
Although the facts of the Gurney case were hideous, the judge said torture or extreme cruelty didn’t apply because Sarnacki was already dead when he abused the body.
Celli, R-Brewer, said the Gurney case illustrates the need to give judges more leeway in murder cases. Other murder cases have resulted in longer sentences, he said, even though they weren’t nearly as gruesome.
“Some people, by the fact of how they commit the murder, have no business being among the general public,” said Celli, who plans to introduce his bill either this spring or when the Legislature reconvenes next year.
Deputy Attorney General Bill Stokes, who is in charge of murder cases, said he understands why some people think judges need more flexibility in giving life sentences in murder cases.
“Our office has generally gotten significant sentences when they’re not life,” Stokes said. “But I’d have to look at the wording of the legislation before I could comment on it.”