SKOWHEGAN (AP) — A 57-year-old man was found guilty of murder Thursday for killing a young woman more than three decades ago in the oldest coldcase murder trial ever in Maine.

Jay Mercier of Industry faces 25 years to life in prison for the beating death of 20-year-old Rita St. Peter of Anson. He’s expected to be sentenced in November.

Mercier was a suspect from the start after St. Peter’s body was found by the side of a rural road in Anson on July 5, 1980, but police didn’t charge him until a year ago after his DNA was matched to DNA from semen recovered from St. Peter’s body.

Mercier didn’t testify during the five-day trial in Somerset County Superior Court, but police told jurors that Mercier repeatedly denied knowing St. Peter, giving her a ride in his pickup truck, or having sex with her, even with the DNA match.

During his closing argument Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson told jurors that Mercier misled police because he killed her.

“Sex may not make Mr. Mercier a murderer, but sex in this case proves murder over and over and over again,” said Benson.

Defense attorney John Alsop told jurors the state’s case was weak, comparing it to a wobbly three-legged stool. Because the case was so old, witnesses had passed away, evidence had been lost and memories were faulty, he said.

“The three legs are feeble, cracked or weak. Don’t sit on the stool, ladies and gentlemen,” Alsop said.

St. Peter had been drinking in a bar in Madison on the night of July 4, 1980, and was last seen sometime after midnight crossing a bridge over the Kennebec River from Madison to Anson, a small town 95 miles north of Portland. At the time, she was staying with friends in Anson and working at a Skowhegan restaurant.

Her body was found the next day by the side of a country road. Police testified that she was beaten with a heavy instrument, such as a tire iron, and then run over with a vehicle.

Jurors began deliberating late Thursday morning and returned with the verdict shortly before 3 p.m. St. Peter’s friends and family members embraced and shed tears when the verdict was announced.

The previous oldest cold case in Maine that resulted in an arrest was the 1983 murder of Judith Flagg in Fayette. Thomas Mitchell Jr., of South Portland, was arrested 23 years after her death and later convicted and sentenced to life in prison.



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