Defense attorney says Scarborough man seriously injured Portland woman, but attempted murder charge is ‘over the top’
PORTLAND, Maine — Defense attorneys in the case of a Scarborough man accused of severely beating a Portland woman last summer say the victim first offered sex for money, then stole from him when he refused the proposition.
Defense attorney Daniel Lilley, representing 28-year-old Eric Gwaro, told the court during opening statements Tuesday in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court that Gwaro admits assaulting then-25-year-old Sherri York. But Lilley said additional charges of elevated aggravated assault and attempted murder — both Class A charges that carry maximum sentences of 30 years in prison and $50,000 in fines — should be thrown out.
Prosecutors from the Cumberland County district attorney’s office countered in their opening statement that the evidence will show Gwaro tried to kill the woman, but left her with lingering physical and mental damage.
Deputy District Attorney Megan Elam showed the jury during the first day of the trial Tuesday surveillance-camera video depicting York apparently being dragged by the hair by a black male away from the parking lot of a Big Apple convenience store on the corner of Cumberland Avenue and Washington Avenue on the morning of Aug. 30, 2012.
“As he dragged her from that lot … she was gouged and cut along her back,” Elam said, later adding, “When Sherri York stopped screaming and crying and was lying motionless on the ground, [Gwaro] kicked her and kicked her and stomped her head and stomped her head until her head bounced on the ground.”
According to a stipulation agreed upon by the defense and prosecution, York remained in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities from the night of the incident until May 29, 2013, when she was released into her parents’ care — nine months after the attack. The victim was largely unresponsive for as long as three weeks following the crime, and was forced to relearn how to walk, feed and dress herself during lengthy stays at New England Rehabilitation Center in Portland and RiverRidge Center in Kennebunk.
Lilley acknowledged Tuesday morning that his client “struck this woman hard, several times,” and said Gwaro would agree to charges of Class B aggravated assault and Class E violation of conditions of release for staying out past a 7 p.m. curfew mandated in his bail conditions after his initial arrest in the case.
But he said York, whose record includes a 2011 arrest on charges of engaging in prostitution, first propositioned Gwaro and then stole his money when he turned her down.
Lilley said Gwaro had been drinking on the night of the incident in local bars and may have been intoxicated, and when he saw York on the street corner near the convenience store, wanted to pick her up.
“He is interested in her and believes she’s interested in him,” Lilley described of the defense’s version of the initial encounter. “She gets into the vehicle and propositions him: Sex for money. He was surprised by the offer, because he believed she was interested in him as a person, not as a customer.”
The defense attorney said Gwaro refused the offer, and when York got out of the vehicle, she took with her a $20 bill he had left on his center console.
“When he confronted her, she lied and said she didn’t have the money,” Lilley said. “He became enraged. … He committed aggravated assault. He inflicted serious bodily injuries, but that’s it.
“There’s no contest there [on the two lesser charges],” the defense attorney added. “That makes your job easier. But then [prosecutors] went over the top.”
Lilley also took issue with the charge of elevated aggravated assault, because it assumes the use of a “dangerous weapon” in the crime, which the defense attorney said in this case is Gwaro’s “old, tattered canvas sneaker” the defendant wore while allegedly kicking the victim.
The defense made no mention Tuesday of previous Gwaro statements that he was on the scene to help York and pursue another unnamed attacker when he said police misidentified him as the assailant.
“Mr. Gwaro claimed he was trying to be a hero,” Elam reminded jurors in her opening statement. “Mr. Gwaro said he was chasing the real attacker when the police were chasing him.”
The first witness called of the day was a resident of Montgomery Street, where the incident took place. Craig McKenzie testified that he heard screams outside in the early morning hours of Aug. 30, 2012, and called police. Upon investigating the sounds, he said he found the victim’s bloodied, unconscious body in a nearby alleyway.
The second witness was Portland police Officer Jason Titcomb, one of two officers to first arrive on the scene of the crime. Titcomb said he cornered a “bald, black male” whom witnesses pointed out as a suspect in a nearby park and began chase before another bystander flagged him down at a nearby alley where prosecutors say Gwaro dumped York’s body.
Titcomb said he found the victim “laying on her back” with “blood smeared on her face — her face was extremely swollen.” The officer said the woman’s top, a light sweater, was pulled down and her bra was left disheveled, leaving one of her breasts exposed.
Both articles of clothing, displayed in clear plastic bags, were then entered into evidence by prosecutors.
Other witnesses included two other Portland police officers who responded to the scene, a woman working at the Preble Street Resource Center who said she saw Gwaro urinate on the side of her building in the hours before the alleged crime, a man who lived near the crime scene who was woken up by screams, and a man who worked at the Big Apple on the night of the incident.
Witnesses reported seeing Gwaro in two different shirts on the night of the crime — one, a black T-shirt bearing the words “I hope you like animals, because I’m a beast,” and the other, a plain red shirt. Both articles of clothing were entered into evidence by prosecutors.
Witness Clifford Hethcoat testified that he saw the alleged assault from his apartment window, and when he yelled at the attacker, the man responded by saying, “Don’t worry — she’s drunk. I’m just helping her out.” Hethcoat said it appeared the man was “punching and stomping” the victim.
“Since Aug. 30, 2012, Sherri York has not been able to walk unassisted,” Elam told jurors. “Sherri York continues to this day to have mental and physical disabilities because of what took place on Aug. 30, 2012.”