PORTLAND, Maine — A Scarborough man accused of severely beating a Portland woman was acquitted by a jury on charges of attempted murder but found guilty on three other charges.
Eric Gwaro, 28, was found not guilty Monday of Class A attempted murder, but guilty of Class A elevated aggravated assault and Class B aggravated assault and Class E violation of bail conditions.
Gwaro’s attorneys argued throughout his approximately weeklong trial that although he did strike 25-year-old victim Sherri York during a dispute over money in the early morning hours of Aug. 30, he never stomped on her head as alleged and was too drunk at the time to have consciously formed the intent to kill her with his actions.
The jury deliberated for approximately two hours before rendering its verdict — first for 45 minutes on Friday afternoon before court closed for the day, then for just more than an hour on Monday morning.
“We feel it’s a mixed bag, but we feel pleased that the elephant in the room — attempted murder — is gone,” said defense attorney Daniel Lilley outside the Cumberland County courthouse Monday morning. Lilley said he maintains that the other Class A charge of elevated aggravated assault is “deeply flawed” and plans to appeal the conviction on that count to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
“Once that goes, and we’re pretty optimistic it will, he’ll face a maximum sentence of 10 years” in prison, Lilley said.
Class A charges carry maximum sentences of 30 years in prison and $50,000 in fines, while a Class B charge carries a top sentence of 10 years in prison and $20,000 in fines. A Class E misdemeanor charge could yield a maximum sentence of six months in jail and $1,000 in fines.
The defense did not dispute the fact that Gwaro repeatedly hit York on the night in question, but they argued about the extent of the assault and his intentions at the time.
The attack left York unable to communicate for nearly a month afterward, and she spent nine months in hospitals and rehabilitation centers relearning how to walk, feed and dress herself, according to prosecutors.
The timeline seemingly accepted by attorneys for both sides in the case involved Gwaro leaving his job as a Cape Elizabeth bartender on the night of the crime, visiting several Portland area bars for drinks and then attempting to pick up York outside the Big Apple convenience store at the corner of Washington and Cumberland avenues.
York allegedly offered to have sex with Gwaro for money, but defense attorneys argued that he refused, then became “enraged” when she stole cash from the center console of his vehicle and fled while stopped at a red light.
Gwaro, who is married with two children, took the witness stand in his own defense Friday and suggested he’d never previously met York, but found her attractive and hoped she’d join him for drinks and potentially a romantic encounter.
He said he circled the city in his vehicle looking for York after she ran away with his money and eventually found her near the Big Apple where he first met her. There, Gwaro admitted to grabbing the back of her collar and dragging her out of the convenience store parking lot — an action shown to the jury in convenience store surveillance video footage — and then hitting her with his hands approximately three times.
That’s where defense and prosecution accounts of the night diverge dramatically. Cumberland County Deputy District Attorney Megan Elam contended during the trial that Gwaro followed up the initial strikes by kicking and stomping on the head of York while she was unconscious on the ground, then carried her to a nearby Montgomery Street alley and dumped the nearly lifeless body.
Lilley and Tina Nadeau, another defense attorney, countered that Gwaro was suffering from periodic blackouts on the night in question because of his heavy drinking, and didn’t remember what transpired after the first three strikes. But Gwaro said from the witness stand he couldn’t have kicked or stomped on York’s head during the time of memory loss because “that’s not the person that I know that I am.”
Gwaro said the next thing he remembered after hitting York with his hands was running from police several minutes later.
During the trial, Lilley attacked the credibility of the two witnesses who testified that they saw the alleged kicking and stomping that was central to the prosecution’s case, saying the individuals — residents of a nearby Montgomery Street apartment who said they were awoken by the commotion outside — had criminal histories of their own and couldn’t be trusted.
The prosecutor said the witnesses’ criminal histories made them natural adversaries for law enforcement, not allies who would concoct stories to help the police and prosecution.
While a worker from a nearby homeless shelter testified she saw Gwaro urinate on the side of her building and was concerned he was drunk, two police officers who later pulled Gwaro over testified they found no signs of intoxication.
Another point of debate in the trial was the prosecution’s contention that Gwaro’s “shod foot” could be considered a “dangerous weapon,” a distinction necessary to create the charge of elevated aggravated assault. Lilley argued that calling the decade-old canvas sneaker Gwaro wore on the night of the crime a “dangerous weapon” was “over the top,” even if jurors did believe he used his foot to assault York at some point during the assault.