Expert says defendant’s tires could have made tracks at 1980 murder scene

Posted Sept. 21, 2012, at 9:40 a.m.
Last modified Sept. 27, 2012, at 1:39 p.m.
Jay Mercier (right) listens to opening arguments at the start of his trial in the murder of Rita St. Peter in 1980.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
Jay Mercier (right) listens to opening arguments at the start of his trial in the murder of Rita St. Peter in 1980. Buy Photo

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — The testimony of a tire comparison expert Friday afternoon in the Jay S. Mercier murder trial showed jurors how far the science of forensics has evolved since 1980.

Alicia Wilcox, a fingerprint and tire impression expert formerly with the Maine State Police and who now works for Husson University, told jurors that the tires on Mercier’s truck 32 years ago could have made the tracks photographed at the scene of Rita St. Peter’s slaying.

Mercier, 57, of Industry is charged with murder in connection with the death of St. Peter, 20, of Anson, who was found dead off Campground Road in Anson on July 5, 1980.

Mercier is accused of bludgeoning St. Peter on the head with a blunt instrument similar to a tire iron and running over her with a 56-day-old GMC pickup truck.

Wilcox, a native of Ireland, testified about how she was asked in 2005 to look at what was considered a cold case. She told jurors that she compared the inked impressions made from sections of the four tires on Mercier’s 1980 GMC pickup truck the day after St. Peter’s body was found. She said the tread depicted on the imprints made of a section of the tires by retired Maine State Police Trooper A.J. Carter, who testified Thursday, could have made the tracks on paper towels found at the scene and the tracks on the dirt trail.

She also told the jury that she could not say that tires from Mercier’s truck actually made the tracks. Wilcox said she also could not tell when the tracks were made on the trail where St. Peter’s body was found.

Wilcox said state police troopers today would have handled the scene differently. They would have held the camera perpendicular to the ground rather than at an angle when taking the photos. They also would have placed a scale — an L-shaped instrument with inches and centimeters marked on it — next to the tread.

In addition, she told jurors that today ink impressions are made of the circumference of each tire, not just a section, as was done in 1980. She also said the inked tires would be rolled over poster board rather than butcher paper.

Defense attorney John Alsop of Skowhegan asked Wilcox to compare the tread on other tires made in 1980 using copies of drawings of the tires.

Wilcox said she could not make a comparison while testifying.

“I can’t do justice to the science on the stand,” she said.

Alsop and his co-counsel, John Martin of Skowhegan, have asked to have the ink prints made of Mercier’s tire tracks thrown out because of questions about where and how they were stored by the Maine State Police for the past three decades. The paper on which one of the tracks was made appears to have been crumpled up, then smoothed out again.

Superior Court Justice John Nivision has said he and the jury will hear the evidence about the tire prints before he decides whether it can be considered in their deliberations.

Just before the lunch break Friday, a Maryland woman testified that she saw Mercier and the victim on July 4, 1980, in downtown Madison.

Kathleen Chagnon of Maryland told jurors Friday that she saw Mercier outside the Depot, a bar and dance club located in a former bowling alley, on the Fourth of July 32 years ago. She testified that she also saw an intoxicated St. Peter walk down the street, fall down on the railroad tracks as she tried to cross them, get back up and head toward a bridge that has since been replaced.

Chagnon said after she saw St. Peter fall, she saw Mercier’s truck headed in the same direction St. Peter had gone. She said the tires on Mercier’s 1980 GMC pickup truck were large and that “nobody else around here had one like it.”

Under cross-examination by Martin, Chagnon said she remembered seeing them both that night despite the attorney’s reference to reports citing an investigator’s conversation with her over that past two years in which she said she could not remember that night clearly.

William Manduca of Dresden also testified Friday morning. A retired trooper with the Maine State Police, he testified that he was working for the crime lab in 1980 and was called to the scene where St. Peter’s body was found on July 5. He said he photographed her body, tire tracks and items at the scene and collected evidence.

He also told jurors that he took photographs of the autopsy on St. Peter’s body performed by retired chief medical examiner Dr. Henry Ryan.

Manduca said he saw Ryan take swabs of tissue from St. Peter’s mouth, vagina and rectum. He said his involvement with the case ended on Monday, July 7, when he turned the evidence over to others at the crime lab, which is not the modern building now known as the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory.

Under cross-examination by Alsop, Manduca denied being “under the influence” when he arrived at the scene in 1980.

“Are you aware that another trooper reported that you were under the influence while you were there?” Alsop asked.

He did not name the trooper or say whether the report was made in 1980 or during the defense team’s preparation for trial.

“I heard that, and I don’t know what the hell he was talking about, excuse my language,” Manduca replied.

Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson, who is prosecuting the case, warned jurors in his opening statement that forensic science “was in its infancy” in 1980. The prosecutor said the analysis of the DNA evidence that would be introduced at trial would not have been possible 32 years ago.

Defense attorney Martin said all today’s modern techniques could prove was that Mercier slept with St. Peter, not that he killed her.

The trial is scheduled to end late next week.

The Somerset County grand jury indicted Mercier for murder on Sept. 16, 2011. He was arrested at his home on Sept. 28 and pleaded not guilty on Oct. 6. Mercier was denied bail in January and has been held at the Somerset County Jail in East Madison since his arrest.

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