Gregory Vance, stands with his attorney Tina Heather Nadeau in Cumberland County Superior Court last November, when he pleaded guilty to murdering his girlfriend, Patricia Grassi. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

A judge sentenced a Portland man Wednesday to 28 years in prison for the murder of his longtime girlfriend last year.

Gregory Vance, 62, sat quietly when the judge announced the sentence at the Cumberland County Courthouse. But earlier in the hearing, he wept as he described his remorse for strangling the woman he described as “my best friend, the love of my life, the girl of my dreams.”

Vance pleaded guilty in November to murdering Patricia Grassi, who was 59 at the time of her death.

“I’m so sorry Patti’s life came to such an abrupt end by my actions that day 17 months ago,” Vance said. “Every hour of every day, I am saddened by her absence. I really do miss her so very much.”

The state requested a sentence of 35 years, the maximum allowed in this case under a plea agreement. The defense requested 25 years, which is the minimum penalty for murder.

Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills said she knew the family might not be satisfied by her decision.

Patricia Grassi Photo courtesy of the family

“I don’t expect you to agree with this sentence, but don’t give yourself a longer sentence than I have given him,” Mills said to them. “That is my best advice to you.”

The sentencing had been delayed by the pandemic, and the hearing took place in the largest courtroom to observe social distancing protocols. Vance, who has been incarcerated at the Cumberland County Jail since his arrest, sat with his attorneys. His family watched the hearing on a video stream but did not speak. Grassi’s family sat together in the audience. Everyone wore masks.

Court documents show Vance and Grassi were in a tumultuous relationship for 15 years. Portland officers responded to their apartment on Cumberland Avenue on March 17, 2019. Vance’s daughter had requested a wellness check, and police later said Vance had called his daughter and ex-wife to confess to the killing. When the officers arrived that day, Vance told them that Grassi was dead and he was sorry. They arrested him, and an autopsy found that her cause of death was ligature strangulation.

Assistant Attorney General Bud Ellis argued Wednesday that the violent crime warranted the most severe sentence allowed under the plea agreement. He also emphasized that Vance has prior convictions for violent crimes, including a 1990 conviction for gross sexual assault against a family member. He was ordered to serve five years in prison for that crime and has registered as a sex offender ever since.

“This is not a quick and painless death,” Ellis said. “It most certainly was accompanied by extreme pain, the victim most certainly struggled for her life for some period before the death occurred and the defendant succeeded in, using his own words, ‘choking her until she stopped breathing.’ ”

Defense attorney Tina Heather Nadeau argued that those convictions were decades old and should not influence the sentencing. She said he experienced physical and sexual abuse as a child, and he struggled with alcoholism for many years. Nadeau described the couple as being in “a spiral” and “a pressure cooker,” living in a cramped apartment and experiencing worsening depression before the murder.

She also asked the judge to consider his age and to give Vance the hope that he might be released before his death. If he lives through the sentence that was imposed, he will be in his 80s when he leaves prison.

“The question remains: can this Court give Greg any hope of being free before he dies?” Nadeau wrote in her own memo. “A sentence of 25 years will give him that hope. A sentence of 35 years would eviscerate any hope of a day of freedom. This is the bleak reality Greg faces. This is why he is approaching this Court and asking for its mercy.”

Both attorneys described the relationship between Vance and Grassi as volatile and toxic. The two struggled with bouts of homelessness, mental illness and addiction. They also said that Grassi subjected Vance to physical and verbal abuse.

The victim’s family described similar struggles in their statements to the court, but they remembered Grassi in happier times as well.

“Patti had mental health and substance abuse issues and struggled with those for most of her adult life,” her sister Catherine Stoddard said. “However, these issues should not be the definition of her life, and in spite of those problems, she had a good heart. She loved her family, animals, plants, flowers and the ocean. And we all loved her.”

Three sisters spoke about how they had tried to help Grassi over the years and hoped she would find a more stable life. Michelina Gerry, one of her 10 siblings, remembered the times when Grassi stayed with her, how they would drink tea and play Scrabble together.

“Now that she is gone, I have realized two things,” Gerry said through tears. “One, that she will never have a chance to overcome that life and reunite with us. And two, she is now free of that way of life and will never have to live that way of life again. On some strange level, I find comfort in that.”

Mills said the family’s loss was the most serious aggravating factor in her sentencing decision, and she gave credit to Vance for deciding to plead guilty and spare them a trial. She also said she considered him a low risk to commit new crimes because of his age if he is released from prison, and she saw his childhood trauma and history of mental illness as mitigating factors.

She also referenced the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused correctional facilities to restrict visits and impose new rules.

“These circumstances have raised incarceration to a wholly new level, and I expect that the distress caused to the defendant from these circumstances is significant,” Mills said. “I think that is a factor that I am willing to consider at sentencings such as this.”

Vance can petition to appeal his sentence.

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