Mercier convicted of deliberate homicide

After less than two hours of deliberations a Lincoln County jury convicted Trevor Mercier of deliberate homicide and tampering with evidence. Mercier killed Sheena Devine in October 2016.

Police were called to Devine’s residence in Libby on the morning of Oct. 6, 2016, after Devine’s body was found at her home. Investigators determined Devine’s young daughters were asleep at the time of the murder, but found their mother’s body in the home that morning. Mercier was identified as a person of interest almost immediately, and was arrested at his home in Libby Oct. 7, 2016.

Mercier’s defense team never denied Mercier’s role in Devine’s death, admitting in both opening and closing arguments that his actions caused the woman’s death. Public defender Alisha Backus argued, however, that Mercier didn’t intend to kill Devine and that her death was the result of negligent actions on the part of Mercier.

Backus argued in her closing statement that Mercier should be held accountable for Devine’s death, but implored the jury to render a verdict of guilty to a lesser-included charge of negligent homicide. During her more than hour-long closing statement, Backus repeatedly admitted her client’s role in the murder, while attempting to cast doubt upon the investigation, the police, and the county attorney’s office. She told jurors that her client did not know the so-called “sleeper hold” Mercier used to subdue Devine could be fatal.

Backus told jurors that Mercier’s admittedly childish decision to “lob a rock” at Devine’s car, coupled with the possibility that Devine may have  smoked marijuana the night of the murder, created a “perfect storm” that contributed to her death, a death Mercier did not plan. She told jurors Devine came out of her home to confront Mercier after the rock smashed her car’s windshield, and that, after subduing her, Mercier carried Devine back into the house, still alive and breathing.

Deputy County Attorney Jeff Zwang delivered the first of the prosecution’s closing remarks. His passionate statement brought tears to the eyes of many observers in the court as he summarized the prosecution’s case. He reminded jurors of the body found on that fateful morning by two young girls, forever losing their mother. He told jurors about how Devine’s body was found on the living room floor and questioned why, if Mercier thought she was still alive, he placed her on the floor and not on a couch or bed. He implored the members of the jury to find Mercier guilty of deliberate homicide.

He reminded jurors of expert witness testimony indicated that the hold Mercier used would cause a person to be rendered unconscious in 10 to 15 seconds, but that her death by strangulation would require between three and five minutes of continued pressure on her neck.

“I can’t tell you what a human life is worth,” Zwang said. “I can tell you that on the night of Oct. 5, 2016, the defendant took everything from Sheena Devine. He took everything she had and everything she was ever going to have and he strangled it out of her right there outside her own home. I can tell you it took longer than 15 to 20 seconds for him to beat her so badly that she had hemorrhages all around her head and sternum. It also took longer than 15 to 20 seconds to kill her. It took at least three to five minutes. Three to five minutes, ladies and gentlemen, to bring all the years of her life crashing down around her. He kept strangling her long after she was unconscious. She was a 119 pound wisp of a woman limp in his arms, offering no danger, no threat to anybody, and completely at his mercy. But there was no mercy for Sheena Devine that night, because the defendant wouldn’t let go. When he kept strangling her, even after she went limp, he must have known that what he was doing was likely to result in her death. Ladies and gentlemen he knew that he was killing her and he kept doing it anyway. That’s not an accident, it’s not negligence. It’s deliberate homicide.”

Backus responded to Zwang’s closing, arguing the prosecution failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mercier knowingly or purposefully killed Devine. She told jurors the investigators failed to maintain a separate crime scene log and didn’t remove the body in a timely fashion. She criticized law enforcement for allowing the county attorney’s deputies to visit the crime scene before the body was removed, claiming it in some way tainted their view of the case and argued both police and prosecutors victimized Mercier with inflated charges in a “rush to judgment.” She told jurors that key witnesses had changed their testimony between the time of their initial statements and their trial testimony.

Backus also told jurors to ignore the February 2016 arrest, and subsequent conviction, of Mercier for partner-family member assault, a case in which Devine was the victim. She told them to ignore the conviction because a licensed counselor concluded after less than four hours of interviews with both Mercier and Devine, that the no-contact order put in place after the assault should be lifted. In the end she asked jurors, as she did in her opening statement last week, to render a verdict of guilty to a charge of negligent homicide.

Deputy County Attorney Marcia Boris responded to Backus’ arguments, characterizing them as “smoke and mirrors.” She said investigators maintained several levels of documentation about entry and exit from the crime scene, and that despite their claims of no crime scene log, the defense offered no evidence nor even offered an argument about the crime scene being contaminated.

She told jurors to consider Mercier’s conviction for domestic assault because it fit the same pattern of his vicious attack on Devine the night of her murder. She told jurors that during the first incident, Mercier was outside the residence, with Devine inside behind a locked door. Devine’s neighbor stepped in to stop the fight and convinced Mercier to go home, she said, but Mercier said he needed to get his shoe from inside the house. When Devine opened the door to give Mercier the shoe, he pushed his way into the residence and attacked her.

The strategy, she said, was the same as on that fateful night in October. Mercier threw rocks at Devine’s car in order to lure her outside, Boris said. Once out of the house, Devine had no chance against her assailant.

She told the jurors that in order to believe the defense’s claims of Devine being alive when Mercier left they would need to come to the conclusion that Mercier put an unconscious Devine on the floor in her house and then believe that another person came into the home, dragged her back outside and administered a “savage beating,” and then brought her back into the house and left her in the exact same position on the floor without being seen by anyone.

Boris condemned the defense’s attempts to minimize the actions of Mercier. She told the jurors they should be disgusted by Backus’ attempts to minimize the victim and the crime.

“And you should be appalled that the value of her life apparently escapes Ms. Backus, just as the value of her life to her children and her family were disregarded by Trevor Mercier on the night of October 5,” she said.

In the end, Boris told jurors the strangulation of Sheena Devine by Trevor Mercier was not quick, and it was not accidental. The medical experts, she said, proved the attack took between three and six minutes.

“It was deliberate, not negligent,” she told jurors.

Less than two hours after that statement, the jury returned in agreement with Boris and Zwang, and found Trevor Mercier guilty of deliberate homicide and tampering with evidence.

According to Montana Code Annotated 45-5-102, “A person convicted of the offense of deliberate homicide shall be punished by death as provided in 46-18-301 through 46-18-310, unless the person is less than 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the offense, by life imprisonment, or by imprisonment in the state prison for a term of not less than 10 years or more than 100 years, except as provided in 46-18-219 and 46-18-222.”

After reading the verdict, Judge Matthew Cuffe scheduled Mercier’s sentencing for October 10, 2017.