PORTLAND, Maine — In the appeal of the cold case murder conviction of Jay Mercier, the state’s highest court must decide whether the current medical examiner is qualified to testify about an investigation that took place before her time.
Mercier was found guilty in 2012 of the 1980 murder of 20-year-old Rita St. Peter of Anson. He was 56 and living in Industry at the time of his conviction.
St. Peter’s bloody, beaten body was found off Campground Road in Anson on July 5, 1980, but only with the advancement of DNA technology three decades later was longtime suspect Mercier definitively tied to the crime by analysis of sperm samples from the scene.
Now, less than two years into a 70-year prison sentence for the murder, Mercier is asking the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to throw out the conviction.
Bangor attorney Hunter Tzovarras, representing Mercier, told the law court Wednesday morning in Portland that the guilty verdict should be overturned, in part, because investigators at the time of the crime moved his client’s truck before searching it — creating the possibility of evidence contamination — and because current state Chief Medical Examiner Margaret Greenwald testified on a case in which she wasn’t originally involved.
Greenwald testified during the trial based on the autopsy report generated in 1980 by then-medical examiner Henry Ryan.
Chief Justice Leigh Saufley told Tzovarras that if the court sides with him — ruling that Greenwald’s testimony should not have been allowed because the investigation was conducted before her tenure — it could set a precedent that would undermine almost any cold-case prosecution.
“There must be some way for that [cause of death] evidence to be presented” in cold-case trials taking place after the original physician has died, for instance, Saufley said. “Your argument would preclude any information about the cause of death.”
Justice Donald Alexander added, “Doctors use and recognize other doctors’ reports in their testimonies all the time.”
Other justices said the onus was on Mercier’s defense attorneys at the trial to find fault in Greenwald’s testimony, not the responsibility of the higher court to override it after the fact. Justice Ellen Gorman said the defense could have called its own expert medical witness to contradict Greenwald’s conclusion about the cause of death, while Justice Warren Silver said Mercier’s attorney could have tried to cast doubt about the validity of the autopsy report during cross examination of Greenwald.
“All of that was fair game upon cross examination by the defense,” agreed Assistant Attorney General Lara Nomani, representing the state, in court Wednesday.
Nomani added that prosecutors didn’t ask Greenwald during the trial to relay any findings or conclusions reached by her predecessor, but rather to view the autopsy report and draw her own independent conclusions as a subject matter expert.
Nomani also argued that investigators in 1980 made it clear to Mercier they would be moving his truck before searching it, despite subsequent statements that he only agreed to allow the search if it took place on-site.
“Mr. Mercier handed law enforcement the keys to his truck to facilitate the removal of the truck to another location,” she said.
The supreme court justices didn’t devote any of their questioning to Tzovarras’ argument that Mercier was improperly interrogated in 1987 after being read his Miranda rights and declining to speak. But they did put Nomani on the spot about Tzovarras’ argument that a prosecutor during the trial’s closing arguments told jurors he didn’t trust the defense attorney — a potentially unprofessional personal jab — and that tire tracks found at the scene were Mercier’s, despite a lack of conclusive evidence that they were.
“That was not a best practice and it was ill-advised,” Nomani acknowledged of the closing argument comments, but she argued the missteps weren’t enough to throw out the conviction.
There is no timetable upon which the state supreme court must issue its ruling in the case.