Attorney: Beheading video should not have been permissible in murder conviction

Posted Jan. 10, 2012, at 5:14 p.m.
Zoe Sarnacki
Gordon Chibroski | AP
Zoe Sarnacki
Chad Gurney in court in January 2011.
Joel Page | AP
Chad Gurney in court in January 2011.

PORTLAND, Maine — A lawyer representing a Portland man who strangled his girlfriend, decapitated her and set fire to her corpse argued before Maine’s highest court Tuesday that Chad Gurney should not have been convicted of the murder because evidence found on his computer, including a link to a grisly video, should not have been allowed in the case against him.

Gurney, 30, was sentenced to 60 years in prison in March by Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Roland Cole. The crime, committed against 18-year-old Zoe Sarnacki, took place in May 2009, four years after his Liberty University lacrosse team van crashed and two days before Gurney was slated to leave for Thailand as part of a reported spiritual quest.

“It’s clear Mr. Gurney was not normal in the way he viewed the world, but the issue the court struggled with was whether he understood that what he did was wrong,” Chief Justice Leigh Saufley said Tuesday during the hearing.

Attorney Sarah Churchill, representing Gurney, told the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday that a concussion and other injuries from the 2005 crash required 20 surgeries and left the Portland man delusional. Churchill argued before the court that Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Roland Cole erred in February when he found Gurney guilty, in part because police search warrants should not have applied to Gurney’s smartphone, laptop and Facebook page — and evidence harvested from those places, most prominently a link to a beheading video, should not have been considered by the court.

While the court should not have considered the smartphone and laptop evidence, Churchill argued Tuesday, it should have given more weight to journal entries showing he suffered from psychosis and was insane when he committed the crime.

Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber countered before the court that Gurney murdered Sarnacki in revenge for her reportedly sleeping with another man. He said the link to a video of a woman being beheaded, which was accompanied by language suggesting the mutilation depicted was done as punishment for cheating, suggests premeditation.

Macomber said no information from Facebook was used in the case against Gurney.

“The evidence was overwhelming that Chad Gurney knew what he was doing,” Macomber said. “He told police he knew what he was doing and he knew that it was wrong.”

Churchill told the Bangor Daily News after leaving the Portland courtroom Tuesday the court could issue its decision anytime from “a couple of weeks from now, to a couple months, to several months.”

“It’s really hard to tell” how the justices are leaning, Churchill said. “You can’t really read into what they ask about. We just have to wait to get the opinion.”

Kathy Kosnow, Sarnacki’s aunt, said after the hearing that Gurney’s appeal to the law court was not unexpected, but it hurts the victim’s family members to relive the crime.

“It takes your breath away to see it and hear it,” she said. “It brings it all back. … It’s important to me just to be here for Zoe. You don’t want to hear this stuff again, but it’s important to be here.”

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