PORTLAND — The defense declared a partial victory Monday in the trial of a Scarborough man accused of severely beating a Portland woman after the jury acquitted Eric Gwaro of attempted murder, but found him guilty on three other charges.
Gwaro, 28, was found not guilty of Class A attempted murder, but guilty of Class A elevated aggravated assault, Class B aggravated assault, and Class E violation of bail conditions.
Defense attorneys Daniel Lilley and Tina Nadeau argued throughout Gwaro’s almost week-long trial that although he did strike 25-year-old Sherri York during a dispute over money in the early morning hours of Aug. 30, 2012, he never stomped on her head as alleged and was too drunk at the time to have consciously formed the intent to kill her.
The jury deliberated for approximately two hours before rendering its verdict — first for 45 minutes on Friday afternoon before court closed for the day, then for just more than an hour on Monday morning.
The defense did not dispute that Gwaro repeatedly hit York on the night in question.
The time-line seemingly accepted by prosecutors and defense attorneys involved Gwaro leaving his job as a Cape Elizabeth bartender on the night of the crime, visiting several Portland-area bars for drinks, and then attempting to pick up York outside the Big Apple convenience store at the corner of Washington and Cumberland avenues.
York allegedly offered to have sex with Gwaro for money, but defense attorneys argued that he refused, then became “enraged” when she stole cash from the center console of his vehicle and fled while stopped at a red light.
Gwaro, who is married with two children, took the witness stand in his own defense Friday and suggested he’d never previously met York, but found her attractive and hoped she’d join him for drinks and potentially a romantic encounter.
He said he circled the city in his vehicle looking for York after she ran away with his money and eventually found her near the Big Apple, where he first met her. There, Gwaro admitted to grabbing the back of her collar and dragging her out of the convenience store parking lot – an action shown to the jury in convenience store surveillance video footage – and then hitting her with his hands approximately three times.
That’s where defense and prosecution accounts of the night diverged dramatically.
Cumberland County Deputy District Attorney Megan Elam contended during the trial that Gwaro followed up the initial strikes by kicking and stomping on York’s head while she was unconscious on the ground, then carried her to a nearby Montgomery Street alley and dumped her nearly lifeless body.
The defense attorneys countered that Gwaro was suffering from periodic blackouts on the night in question because of his heavy drinking, and didn’t remember what transpired after the first three strikes. Gwaro said from the witness stand he couldn’t have kicked or stomped on York’s head during the time of memory loss because “that’s not the person that I know that I am.”
He said the next thing he remembered after hitting York with his hands was running from police several minutes later.
Lilley during the trial attacked the credibility of two witnesses who testified they saw the alleged kicking and stomping action central to the prosecution’s case. He said the individuals, residents of a nearby Montgomery Street apartment who were awoken by the commotion outside, had criminal histories of their own and couldn’t be trusted.
Elam countered that the witnesses’ criminal histories made them natural adversaries for law enforcement, not allies who would concoct stories to help the police and prosecution.
Testimony delivered during the trial conflicted on the level of Gwaro’s inebriation on the night of the crime, with a worker from a nearby homeless shelter saying she saw him urinate on the side of her building and was concerned he was drunk. Two police officers also said they later pulled him over and found no signs of intoxication.
Another point of debate in the trial was the prosecution’s contention that Gwaro’s “shod foot” could be considered a “dangerous weapon,” a distinction necessary to create the charge of elevated aggravated assault.
Lilley argued that calling the decade-old canvas sneaker Gwaro wore on the night of the crime a “dangerous weapon” was “over the top,” even if jurors did believe he used his foot to assault York.
The Class A assault conviction carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and $50,000 in fines, while the Class B conviction carries a top sentence of 10 years in prison and $20,000 in fines. The Class E misdemeanor conviction could yield a maximum sentence of six months in jail and $1,000 in fines.