PORTLAND – A man who is accused of killing his 18-year-old girlfriend in the spring of 2009 has waived his right to a jury at his trial, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 10 in Cumberland County Superior Court.

The legal fate of Chad Gurney, 29, now rests solely with Justice Roland Cole.

Gurney is charged with murder and arson in the killing of Zoe Sarnacki on May 25, 2009. Authorities say he choked and decapitated the former Deering High School student, then set fire to her body in his apartment on Cumberland Avenue in Portland.

The two apparently met in Portland’s Old Port and spent time together in the weeks before Sarnacki’s death.

Gurney has entered simultaneous pleas of not guilty and not criminally responsible by reason of insanity.

The prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese, said she was informed last week about Gurney’s decision to waive his right to a jury.

She has prosecuted in more than 50 murder trials since the mid-1980s, and all of them have been decided by juries. But Marchese said Gurney’s decision does not change her approach to the case.

“It probably will make the case go a little bit faster. Because you are not worrying about a jury, it tends to be much more streamlined,” Marchese said. “The evidence is the same, the rules are the same.”

Gurney does not dispute that he caused Sarnacki’s death. He has apologized to the family and has already settled a $1.35 million wrongful-death lawsuit.

The question for Cole will be whether Gurney was sane on May 25, 2009.

Much of the trial likely will focus on the dueling testimony of psychologists. An expert for the defense is expected to testify that Gurney met the legal definition of insane, while the state’s expert says he was sane and could comprehend the consequences of his actions.

“It is our position that he acted intentionally or knowingly, and not as a result of a mental disease or defect,” Marchese said.

Gurney’s attorney, Robert LeBrasseur, could not be reached for comment Monday. He has said that Gurney suffers from some form of mental illness, possibly related to a van accident in 2005 in which he suffered a brain injury and serious damage to his arms, legs and spine. Gurney received a seven-figure settlement after the crash.

Gurney was scheduled to fly to Thailand two days after the killing. A friend told police that Gurney had been giving away personal belongings in anticipation of the trip, which apparently was part of his spiritual quest.

According to police affidavits, Gurney left his apartment after killing Sarnacki and setting the fire around 6:35 p.m. on May 25, bringing only a bag packed for his trip, his computer and a shotgun.

Gurney checked into a motel in Old Orchard Beach. Shortly after 2 a.m. on May 26, Portland police officer Jason King spoke to him on a cell phone. Gurney told King that he wanted to turn himself in. He came out of his motel room and surrendered to police a few hours later.

During an interview with a Portland detective, Gurney said there was no particular reason why he mutilated Sarnacki or placed a crucifix and other artifacts around her body.

Gurney continues to be held without bail in the Cumberland County Jail.

 

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: [email protected]