November 6, 2012

Accused: No recollection of murdering Maine woman

Defense lawyers concede their client's involvement but claim he was too impaired to be responsible.

By DOUG HARLOW Morning Sentinel

FARMINGTON – The attorneys for a man accused of killing a woman in her apartment last year said during the first day of the murder trial Monday that their client was intoxicated -- possibly involuntarily -- and did not know what he was doing.

click image to enlarge

Juan Contreras and his lawyer, David Sanders.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, asserted that Juan Contreras, 27, of Waltham, Mass., acted intentionally when he killed 81-year-old Grace Burton in June 2011.

Contreras' court-appointed lawyer David Sanders said Burton had jewelry, $275 in her purse, $3,000 more stashed in a freezer, a lock box containing more cash and savings bonds, as well as 13 different types of prescription drugs -- all visible to an intruder.

"All of it had value," Sanders said during cross examination Monday of Sgt. Scott Gosselin of Maine State Police. "There was jewelry, medications some with street value, but there is no evidence that anything was taken, no evidence that anything was disturbed or looked at."

So why did Contreras slit open a screen in a rear bedroom, climb in and stab the woman 35 times? Defense lawyers acknowledged that Contreras was responsible for Burton's death, but claim he might have been drugged.

"There is no answer to the question of why, unless you assume he was not rational," Chris Berryment, the other court-appointed defense lawyer, said in his opening. "Juan Contreras was not rational that night."

Contreras pleaded not guilty of murder in January and waived his right to a jury trial. Justice Michaela Murphy is hearing the case, set for five days, in Franklin County Superior Court.

Sanders said that holding a jury trial in Franklin County would have been impossible because of the amount of publicity the case has received.

Burton was stabbed 35 times in her apartment June 21, 2011, but managed to call police and describe her attacker. She died later that morning at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.

An audio recording of the 911 call she made to police was played in the courtroom Monday, as family members sat, holding back tears.

Police believe that the attacker cut a hole in the screen of an unlocked window to gain access.

Investigators say they have linked Contreras to the murder by matching his DNA to a trail of blood from Burton's rear window to the backyard of the apartment complex.

In court Monday, Maine Chief Medical Examiner Margaret Greenwald provided details of the autopsy completed the day after Burton died.

Greenwald testified that Burton, frail after a recent surgery that left her with a tracheal tube and a catheter, was stabbed in the head and face 12 times, the torso 15 times and also stabbed in the hands, thighs and legs.

She also was bruised from blunt-force trauma.

She died of blood loss and a collapsed lung, Greenwald said.

Contreras voluntarily gave a DNA sample to investigators, who collected samples from hundreds of men with ties to the area.

In court Monday, Sanders said the attack was as a random act of extreme intoxication, possibly fueled by a marijuana cigarette laced with the synthetic drug bath salts.

Contreras told police he had met a man who resembled Jesus Christ at a local bar, smoked marijuana with him, then blacked out.

Assistant Attorney General Deb Cashman, one of two prosecutors in the case, said the bath salts defense was preposterous.

"There were no bath salts -- involuntary intoxication cannot be considered," she said in court.

She said the bath salts defense was a smoke screen by the defense to show Contreras could not have made a decision to kill Burton. He acted intentionally, Cashman said.

Farmington police Sgt. Michael Adcock, who met Contreras at a bike accident a month after Burton's murder, became suspicious after Contreras moved back to Massachusetts from the mobile home park on Pillsbury Lane near the apartment where Burton was killed.

That hunch led to DNA samples and ultimately Contreras' being charged with murder.

The murder charge carries a sentence of 25 years-to-life.

 

Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367, or at:

dharlow@mainetoday.com

 

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