PORTLAND, Maine — Eric Gwaro’s wife testified Thursday that she knew her husband was intoxicated on the night he is accused of attacking Sherri York based off text messages he sent.
Crying from the witness stand as she described bailing Gwaro out of jail last August, Jennifer McDonnell told jurors that her husband is “a binge drinker,” but has never mistreated her or their two young sons.
Gwaro, 28, of Scarborough, faces charges of Class A attempted murder, Class A elevated aggravated assault, Class B aggravated assault and Class E violating conditions of release in connection with an alleged attack that left then-25-year-old York of Portland in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities from the night of the assault until May 29, 2013.
Police have said they arrived on scene of the alleged altercation to discover York lying unconscious on Montgomery Street, and that witnesses pointed out Gwaro, an on-call firefighter, as the assailant. Police then arrested Gwaro after allegedly finding him hiding in nearby hedges and chasing him briefly to Peppermint Park on Cumberland Avenue.
According to a stipulation agreed upon by defense and prosecution lawyers, York remained hospitalized for nine months and was largely unresponsive for as long as three weeks following the crime. The stipulation shows York had to relearn how to walk, feed and dress herself.
On Thursday, the third day of Gwaro’s trial, Assistant District Attorney Meg Elam showed McDonnell printouts of the text messages between her and her husband from that night. Elam said Gwaro wrote, “I thought I knew where the car was but I was wrong. I’m running to where I thought it was.”
McDonnell said video of Gwaro’s interrogation the night of the attack — which jurors viewed Thursday morning — also indicated to her that her husband was intoxicated “and not acting like his real self.”
“Maybe he was just lying to you. Did you ever consider that?” Elam asked.
Elam has argued that Gwaro was intoxicated the night of the crime, but defense attorneys have argued the opposite.
Defense attorney Daniel Lilley said Gwaro admits assaulting York and would agree to charges of Class B aggravated assault and Class E violation of conditions of release for breaking a 7 p.m. curfew imposed after his initial arrest in the case. But Lilley argues that Class A charges of elevated aggravated assault and attempted murder — which each carry a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and $30,000 in fines — should be thrown out.
The defense attorney also argued that York, whose record includes a 2011 arrest on charges of engaging in prostitution, first offered Gwaro sex for money, then stole his money when he turned her down.
Also on Thursday, a private investigator hired by Lilley told jurors that key witnesses presented by the prosecution told him they “didn’t want to help that guy.”
Investigator Joseph T. Thornton told jurors that he visited the homes of then-Montgomery Street resident Megan Lichterman, her then-fiance, Ryan Townsend, and Clifford Hethcote in December to take photographs out the windows from which the witnesses reported viewing the crime.
On Wednesday, Megan Lichterman — testifying under her married name, Megan Townsend — was the first to testify that she saw the brutal assault take place. Townsend told jurors about the attack, and then said she, her then-fiance, brother and his girlfriend all initially refused to give sworn statements to police after the crime because of concerns that neighbors would label them “rats.”
Hethcote told jurors that it appeared the man was “punching and stomping” the victim.
On Thursday, Thornton said that when he attempted to interview the Townsends, “both refused to talk with me, saying they didn’t want to try to help the guy … on whose behalf I was working … they told me they wanted to see him go away for a long time.”
Thornton said he also interviewed Hethcote, who he said told him that he observed no kicking during the assault — which has been a key component to the prosecution’s charges of the class A felonies attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault.
“Did he ever indicate to you that he saw anybody being ‘stomped by the black guy?’” Lilley asked Thornton.
“He didn’t,” Thornton said. He said Hethcote “told me he didn’t want to be identified as a rat” because of a neighborhood “code” that identified those who provided information to authorities.
Jurors on Thursday also saw the jeans, two T-shirts and sneakers Gwaro wore the night of the attack, and heard from Portland Police Department evidence technician Victor Cote, who said DNA testing confirmed that blood on clothing belonged to York.
Again on Thursday, Lilley asked Judge Joyce A. Wheeler to throw out the charges of attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault, the latter of which he said was “the most egregious charge” because “a shod foot is not a dangerous weapon.”
Of the attempted murder charge, Lilley said, “It’s clear from the evidence that his goal was to collect money, not to kill her.”
Elam said the attempted murder charge “is really a question for the jury,” but argued that witness testimony describing Gwaro “stomping” and “kicking” York is sufficient to not only satisfy reasonable doubt, but to prove the elevated aggravated assault charge.
Wheeler said she would rule on Friday as to whether “a shod foot” can be considered a dangerous weapon.
Gwaro told Wheeler on Thursday that he would testify in his own defense and is expected to do so on Friday.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Gwaro was an on-call firefighter. He is no longer an on-call firefighter for the Scarborough Fire Department.