PORTLAND — At the heart of Chad Gurney’s appeal to Maine’s highest court is the question of whether he understood he was doing something wrong when he strangled Zoe Sarnacki, decapitated her corpse and set it on fire.

On Tuesday before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, Gurney’s lawyer conceded that there is evidence he understood the wrongfulness of his actions – but only after the fact.

Other evidence indicates Gurney wasn’t aware at the time that what he was doing was wrong, Sarah Churchill told the justices.

“That’s the time frame that’s really at issue here,” she said. “When he’s committing the acts against Ms. Sarnacki, what is going on in his mind?”

No one disputes that Gurney killed the former Deering High School student on Memorial Day 2009. He argued unsuccessfully during his two-week trial last year that he was not criminally responsible by reason of insanity.

Gurney, now 30, is serving a 60-year prison sentence for murder and arson. Had he been found not criminally responsible, he would have been committed to a psychiatric facility until he was no longer considered a threat to society.

Gurney and Sarnacki, who was 18, dated in the weeks leading up to May 25, 2009. After killing her that afternoon in his apartment on Cumberland Avenue in Portland, Gurney had sex with her corpse, decapitated it, doused it with gasoline and set fire to it.

Gurney’s lawyers have argued that his mental health was affected by a near-fatal van crash in 2005. Gurney suffered a brain injury, almost lost a leg and did lose most of the use of an arm. A subsequent seven-figure insurance settlement enabled him to live independently, and to pay Sarnacki’s family more than $1.3 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit.

Superior Court Justice Roland Cole, who convicted Gurney in a trial with no jury, had to consider testimony about how Gurney was changed by the crash, the role of personality disorder, the effect of medications, and Gurney’s sense that the universe was communicating to him through signs, Churchill argued.

“It’s all of those things in concert that make this case unique,” she said.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley noted that the facts of the case strongly suggest Sarnacki was the victim of domestic violence homicide. The prosecution argued at trial that Gurney was angry that Sarnacki had been intimate with another man while he had been traveling.

One dispute in the appeal is about whether a reference on Gurney’s computer to a video about the beheading of a cheating woman should have been allowed in the trial. It was never determined whether Gurney had viewed the video.

Justice Ellen Gorman noted that there was evidence that could support either position, and said a videotaped confession was possibly the most damning evidence against Gurney.

Churchill disputed the trial judge’s assessment that Gurney was not delusional on the videotape.

“Delusional thinking can still be present and you can still know the wrongfulness of your actions,” Gorman responded. “It’s not as simple as determining whether or not someone suffers from a mental illness. … It’s your burden to establish that whatever major mental illness he was suffering from prevented him from understanding the wrongfulness of his actions at the time he killed her.”

Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber, the prosecutor in Gurney’s trial, told the justices Tuesday that the evidence was overwhelming that Gurney knew what he was doing when he killed and decapitated Sarnacki and set the fire in the apartment.

He said that evidence included Gurney’s confession to police, evaluations of his mental state, and Gurney’s instructing a friend to tell police he hadn’t been the same since his accident.

Macomber said Gurney’s story didn’t change until he got to the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, where he was sent for an in-depth evaluation.

“All of a sudden he turned into a delusional person that was backed up by his $100,000 expert,” Macomber told the justices.

The justices did not indicate when they will rule in the case.

After Tuesday’s proceeding, Kathy Kosnow, Sarnacki’s aunt, compared re-hearing the details of her niece’s killing to being punctured in the gut. She tearfully explained why it was important for her to attend.

“To just be here for Zoe, to let her know that you care,” she said. “You don’t want to hear the stuff that’s said, but you have to. I think you have to.”

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]

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