November 8, 2012

Murder defendant changes plea to guilty

Juan Contreras is sentenced to 50 years in the brutal stabbing death of Grace Burton, 81, last year.

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

FARMINGTON - Juan Contreras, the man on trial this week for the murder of 81-year-old Grace Burton changed his plea to guilty on Thursday.

click image to enlarge

Juan Contreras, shown with his attorney earlier in his trial, told Justice Michaela Murphy Thursday, “It’s what’s right,” during questioning on changing his plea to guilty.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

Under the plea agreement, Contreras, 27, of Waltham, Mass., was sentenced to 50 years in prison for murder.

As a consequence of the felony conviction, he will be deported to his native Guatemala upon his release. He is in the country legally, but is not a U.S. citizen, his lawyer said.

He is expected to serve about 85 percent of the sentence and be about 70 years old when released.

"It's what's right," Contreras said to Justice Michaela Murphy in the jury-waived trial in Franklin County Superior Court.

"Is it a voluntary decision on your part?" Murphy asked.

"Yeah," he replied.

Burton, 81, was stabbed 35 times as she slept in a recliner in her Farmington apartment on June 21, 2011.

Although seriously injured, Burton called police and described her attacker. She died later that morning at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.

Police investigators said they linked Contreras' DNA to a trail of blood from the rear window of Burton's apartment.

Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese, one of two prosecutors in the case, said Contreras looked through Burton's bedroom window that night, saw her sleeping and her purse hanging on a kitchen chair.

She said robbery was the motive, not involuntary intoxication the defense team had presented during the trial. Defense attorneys said someone had laced a marijuana cigarette he smoked with a mind-altering drug.

"He did not intend to kill her because if he did, this would have been a life sentence," Marchese said.

Contreras cut the screen on the window and entered the home, she said. Marchese said Burton woke up and saw Contreras and he "brutally and savagely" attacked her.

Outside the courtroom after the trial, Marchese said that Contreras thought Burton was an easy target and that he had been drinking that night.

"I think the 50 years is a recognition that it's over with and it's a guarantee plea of guilty and there is no question he'll be held accountable for many years," she said.

He could have faced life in prison. The mandatory minimum sentence was 25 years. There is no death sentence in Maine.

Burton's daughter, Julie Shaw, and others who were allowed to speak in the courtroom Thursday before sentencing, said the family has felt shock, grief and anger since the murder.

"He changed my entire family's life," Shaw said in tears. "Not only did he take my mother, he took my best friend in the whole world."

Burton's granddaughter, Roseann Shaw, told the judge that she saw her grandmother in the hospital, too, and will always be haunted by the condition she was in. She said she could see her grandmother had been stabbed many times and had been badly beaten.

"Juan Contreras is dead to me," she said.

Outside the courtroom, Julie Shaw said the family was consulted as the plea agreement unfolded Thursday morning. She said they agreed to the sentence because it was a guarantee Contreras would go to prison for 50 years and not be exonerated or get a lesser sentence.

"It's not going to bring my mother back - nothing will bring my mother back," she said. "It's been miserable sitting through this. It rips your heart right out."

Defense attorney David Sanders said he did not accept robbery as a motive for entering the house. He said Contreras has taken responsibility for her death, but was impaired when the incident happened and did not know what he was doing.

He, his co-counsel Chris Berryment and Contreras reached the plea agreement after consulting with Contreras' mother, Gilma Boyd, of Weymouth, Mass., and her husband, Larry, he said. It was a fair sentence, he said.

"I'm satisfied with the fact that if we had gone forward, he could have done worse," Sanders said. "He changed his mind; he plead guilty in large part because he had both the Burton family sitting there - obviously horribly affected by what had happened and this just made it worse - but he also had his mom and his step-dad sitting there and that made it much worse for him."

Larry Boyd said he and his wife, who is a U.S. citizen, have come to terms with the murder and the sentence.

"We're very sorry for the family and what they are going through," he said. "We hope it brings closure to the family of Grace Burton."

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at:

dharlow@centralmaine.com

 

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