SKOWHEGAN — It took about three hours Thursday for a jury to find Jay Mercier guilty of murder in the 1980 death of Rita St. Peter.

“Rita can finally rest in peace knowing that justice has finally prevailed,” said her sister, Christine Belangia, of Weld, after the verdict. “We were just hoping that we were still going to be alive to see this day, and it has been a wonderful day.

“We can now have closure to the mystery of that night,” she said.

Trying a case that was decades old had its challenges, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson said after the verdict.

“Many pieces of evidence were lost — but in this case, fortunately, all the most important pieces of evidence remained and that was very important to the jury,” Benson said. “Because of the age of the case it was a difficult trial.”

The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for about three hours Thursday afternoon before returning with the verdict against Mercier, 57, of Industry.

Mercier didn’t react when the guilty verdict was read, but family and friends of St. Peter gasped, hugged and wept.

Mercier was quickly led from the courtroom. The murder charge carries a sentence of 25 years to life, and he is expected to be sentenced in November.

About 15 minutes before the 3 p.m. verdict, the jury sent a note to the judge asking for clarification of the difference between murder and manslaughter.

Closing arguments in the trial, which began last Thursday, were made Thursday morning.

Benson said in closing arguments that Mercier was on the prowl July 4, 1980, and St. Peter, who witnesses said was drunk, was an easy target.

“I think the critical piece of evidence in this case was that Miss St. Peter had obviously just had a sexual encounter because of the nature and the disarray of her clothing” when her body was found, Benson said.

He said Mercier’s DNA found on St. Peter’s body was the biggest piece of evidence against him. Mercier, despite the forensic evidence, maintained for more than 30 years that he didn’t know St. Peter and did not have sex with her.

“I think you ask yourself the question, if you weren’t involved in this, why are you covering up for 32 years? Particularly, when in 1980, there was no DNA and he couldn’t have been worried about DNA,” Benson said. “I think the wheels of justice are working excellently.”

Defense attorney John Alsop, in his closing argument, told the jury that hard evidence was lacking against his client. Much of the evidence had passed its expiration date, he said.

The state’s tire evidence — prints of treads found at the scene that were similar to the treads on Mercier’s truck — did not prove Mercier was at the crime scene and the fact that he had sex with her did not mean he killed her.

“We’re looking through a glass darkly,” Alsop told the jury. “We’re looking at a case that is 32 years old.”

Mercier had always denied killing St. Peter, who was 20 when she was last seen walking across the bridge that connects Madison and Anson late on the night before her body was found. Her bloody and battered body was found July 5, 1980, on a field trail off Campground Road in Anson.

Mercier sexually assaulted St. Peter, beat her with something like a tire iron, then ran her over with his truck, according to prosecuters.

The tire iron was never found, but tire-tread evidence from Mercier’s pickup truck matched photographed tire treads at the scene. DNA evidence taken from St. Peter’s body also matched Mercier’s DNA.

Outside the courtroom after the verdict, Alsop said he still thinks there were big holes in the state’s evidence.

“It was a well-tried case,” he said. “We tried to put out all the reasonable doubt we thought there was in the case and unfortunately the jury went in the other direction.”

The state relied on the DNA evidence taken from fluid samples from St. Peter’s body during an autopsy in 1980, before DNA evidence was known. The samples were stored along with other evidence by the State Police Crime Lab in Augusta for the next 25 years.

In 2005, State Police Detective Bryant Jacques visited Mercier at this home and picked up a butt of a cigarette Mercier had just finished smoking.

Lab tests revealed a DNA profile that matched DNA samples taken from St. Peter. Jacques later used the evidence to get a search warrant for a swab of Mercier’s mouth for a more conclusive sample.

Mercier was arrested Sept. 28, 2011, and charged with murder.

Alsop said he expects Mercier to be sentenced sometime in November.

 

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

dharlow@centralmaine.com