Gerry Boyle here. And OK, I have to admit that my fascination with this murder case may have to do with the fact that it happened at the outset of my newspaper career, in a town I came to know very well. It’s a very real place, Somerset County, Maine, and Madison is an old-school milltown. It was my beat when I arrived back in Maine in 1980, juat a few months after Rita St. Peter was murdered just across the bridge in North Anson. I remember the stories. I remember the talk in town about the suspect and his truck.
Now Jay Mercier, with thinning hair and 30 years of guilt or innocence, is on trial in Skowhegan. My friend and former colleague Morning Sentinel reporter Doug Harlow is covering the trial, Maine’s oldest and coldest. DNA says Mercier had sex with the victim the night she died. He says he never met her. Science, meet a cold case. Mr. Mercier, welcome to criminal investigation, 2012 style.
This one is hardly sensational, closer to routine. Old murder, old evidence, new techniques. DNA. Slam dunk. The wrinkle in this one is that the state is having trouble proving the suspect was at the scene of St. Peter’s death. She was 20, drinking at a bar in Madison where I spent the occasional evening. It was across from the mill. In town like Madison, bars usually are.
The talk way back when was that the suspect came home and washed his truck, at 2 a.m. The talk now, at least from the defense side, is that the crime scene was compromised, evidence thrown out. If you can’t prove that the suspect was at the scene, does it matter if he had sex with the victim?
Oh, but that’s for the jury to decide. I read the stories and I think two things. One, I wish I was there for the trial. Two, I read these stories and I’m fascinated.
The victim was just 20, barely out of high school, a small-town woman with a lot of bad luck. Now her supporters in court are middle-aged and older. The suspect, Mercier, was interviewed by police when the murder was fresh. He’s spent 30 years as a prime suspect. DNA doesn’t lie, but does it say enough to lock Mercier up for life?
When you write these books, you read the newspapers a bit differently from most, I think. You weigh evidence. You assess the players. You have a hunch how the jury will swing.
But mostly you think about other things. If this guy is guilty, and he killed this poor woman, ran her over with his truck, and slipped the cops, what was it like to live with that for 30 years. When did the memory crowd into his life? Did he wake up at 3 a.m. with the replay running through his head? Week after week, month after month, year after year? Did he convince himself it never happened? it was an accident? It was someone else?
Who grieved for this young woman? Are there aunts, uncles, cousins, parents who have waited for decades for some sort of justice? What was that like? Did they go weeks, months without mentioning Rita’s name? Was she always lingering somewhere, like a ghost? How will they feel when the jury comes back into the courtroom? Will they hold their breaths when the foreman stands to deliver the verdict?
Of course, all of this may end up in a book someday. But mostly, it’s just a writer’s fascination with people and how they behave in extraordinary circumstances. How do they go on?
That’s what we do, folks. Explore the outer reaches of human behavior. Ponder the ways we cope, or we do not. What is it like to be Jay Mercier? What was it like to be Rita St. Peter?
Real life is the raw material for crime fiction. And some life is crime fiction made real.
Soon, the verdict. I am waiting.
Postscript: Jury out three hours. Guilty as charged. Hard to evade the long arm of DNA.