SKOWHEGAN — Assistant Attorney General Lara Nomani on Tuesday opened the second day of the appeal hearing of convicted killer Jay Mercier with cross examination of the trial attorney who represented the man.

Nomani sought to counter attorney Amy Fairfield’s assertion that Mercier did not get a fair trial in 2012 because of the ineffectiveness of his defense team, led by attorney John Alsop. She later called to the stand Alsop’s co-counsel in the Mercier trial, John Martin, now a district court judge, and Andrew Benson, also now a judge, who was the lead prosecutor in the murder trial in 2012.

Mercier, now 63, was found guilty of murder in the 1980 death of Rita St. Peter after prosecutors used DNA from a cigarette butt to match samples taken from the victim 32 years before.

Rita St. Peter was 20 at the time of her death. Her body was found July 5, 1980, off Campground Road in Anson. Jay Mercier was convicted of her murder in September 2012 and sought a post-conviction review in 2016 after his appeal was rejected by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Mercier is back in court this week in Skowhegan, mounting another appeal. Contributed photo

Nomani attempted to show Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen that Alsop, with co-counsel Martin, two law school interns and a private investigator did considerable research in Mercier’s defense and that the presence of Mercier’s DNA in St. Peter’s body was the deciding factor in his being found guilty of murder.

The court went into recess Tuesday afternoon and no testimony is scheduled for Wednesday.

A paralegal from Fairfield’s office said the next step in the appeal process is a scheduled May 29 telephone conference, to be followed by further scheduling.

It is not clear when Justice Robert Mullen will delivery his ruling on the appeal.

Mercier sexually assaulted St. Peter, beat her with something like a tire iron, then ran her over with his truck, according to prosecutors. Sexual assault charges were never brought against Mercier, a point he has raised in his request for post-conviction review.

Mercier denied killing St. Peter, but DNA evidence taken from St. Peter’s body matched Mercier’s DNA.

Two days of testimony in Somerset County Superior Court wrapped up Tuesday after a short but graphic exchange between Benson, who was on the stand, and Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber, Nomani’s co-counsel in the appeal hearing.

The exchange centered on a man who had been considered to be an alternate suspect in the St. Peter murder — Mark Henry. Macomber asked whether Henry’s sperm was found on St. Peter.

“No,” Benson replied.

“Whose was it?” Macomber continued.

“Jay Mercier’s,” Benson said.

The St. Peter murder was the oldest cold case on the books in Maine until Mercier was arrested in September 2011. Mercier was found guilty in September 2012 in a jury trial in Somerset County Superior Court.

Mercier’s initial appeal of the conviction was denied by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 2014. Another appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to return the case to the lower court also was denied.

Alsop, in his closing argument in 2012, told the jury that hard evidence had been 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, Alsop argued.

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

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

Jay Mercier sits in Somerset County Superior Court on Monday in Skowhegan. It was the first day of an appeal of his conviction for the murder of Rita St. Peter. Morning Sentinel file photo by David Leaming

Mercier had been a suspect from the beginning, but the case had hit a dead end. In 2005, Maine State Police Detective Bryant Jacques and Maine State Police Crime Lab forensic analyst Alicia Wilcox began their investigation of the cold case.

When DNA was extracted in 2009 from sperm cells found in biological evidence taken in 1980 from St. Peter’s body, Jacques established contact with Mercier through a series of casual conversations at Mercier’s home in Industry, according to Law Court documents from his appeal.

In January 2010, after one of these conversations, Jacques collected a cigarette butt that Mercier had discarded on the side of the road. The DNA obtained from Mercier’s cigarette butt matched that found on St. Peter’s body. Jacques later used the evidence to get a search warrant for a swab of Mercier’s mouth for a more conclusive sample.

Mercier was sentenced in December 2012 to 70 years in prison.

In the two days of testimony this week, Alsop and Martin testified that they were experienced lawyers who left no stone unturned in their vigorous defense of Mercier at trial. They said that alternative suspects were not called because most of the hard evidence pointed to Mercier and any attempt to present alternative suspects would have backfired on Mercier as the only possible perpetrator.

“If you lose that battle, the blowback is that Jay Mercier did it,” Alsop said under oath. “The idea that Mr. X, Y or Z did it goes out the window.”

Alsop and Martin said that the case always came back to Mercier’s DNA in St. Peter’s body and that even Mercier’s own mother would not have been a helpful witness.

Nomani agreed, noting that Alsop and Martin “challenged the state at every turn.”

Martin said a room at Alsop’s office in Skowhegan was the center of activity in the Mercier defense. He said he called it the “War Room.”

“We were gearing up for a war, obviously,” Martin said.

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