PORTLAND, Maine — In the weeks before he killed and mutilated his girlfriend, prosecutors say Chad Gurney viewed an Internet video depicting a woman being beheaded as punishment for being unfaithful.

But in the complicated relationship between computer technology and the courtroom, Gurney hopes the same video link used to suggest premeditation will ultimately get his murder conviction thrown out.

The high-profile murder case provides the latest window into what experts are calling the still-evolving debate over computer forensics in criminal justice.

“There’s still some dispute between prosecutors and defense attorneys about what the limits of a search of a person’s hard drive are, and what justifies a search and seizure of a hard drive,” said Portland defense attorney Michael Cunniff, who is not involved in the Gurney case, but whose firm is asking a federal appeals court to suppress electronic evidence in the case against James Cameron, the former prosecutor from Hallowell convicted of child pornography charges.

“Those questions have been the subject of countless court challenges and continue to be,” added Neal Pratt, partner with the Portland-based law firm Preti Flaherty Beliveau & Pachios, who also is not involved with the Gurney case.

Among the articles of text accompanying the gruesome clip linked to Gurney’s computer, Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber told the Maine Supreme Judicial Court this week, was a caption saying something along the lines of, “Guess she’ll never do that again.”

In the case of Gurney — who strangled, decapitated and burned the body of 18-year-old Zoe Sarnacki in May 2009 — prosecutors must prove to the Law Court the Portland man knew what he was doing was wrong, and did not commit the crime in a moment of insanity.

Gurney admitted to the crime, was convicted in February 2011 and sentenced to a total of 60 years in prison the following month. Now, he’s appealing his case to the highest court in the state, with his attorney arguing in part that the computer evidence, most significantly the video link, is questionable and should not have been allowed in the case against him.

Defense attorney Sarah Churchill told the court during a Tuesday hearing on the case that it’s impossible to know for sure whether Gurney watched the video — to which a web address reference was reportedly discovered among a list of others on his laptop — and even if he did, it’s difficult to prove when. If he did view the clip and did so before meeting Sarnacki, she said, it doesn’t indicate preplanning of the murder.

Furthermore, Churchill is arguing police search warrants should not have applied to Gurney’s laptop, smartphone and social networking websites in the first place. Churchill is asking the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to find that Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Roland Cole was wrong to have considered it when finding Gurney guilty.

With the guilty verdict, Cole rejected defense arguments that Gurney was insane at the time of the incident — due to mental damage caused four years earlier in a van crash — and not criminally responsible.

Cunniff, who worked as a drug enforcement agent for nearly 30 years before becoming an attorney, said the legal gray area surrounding computer-based evidence makes cases like Gurney’s vexing for all involved.

“Defense attorneys are not trying to release hordes of criminals onto the streets by making all electronic evidence inadmissible,” he told the Bangor Daily News. “It’s not that police should not be entitled to collect the information, it’s that all the constitutional principles and decisional law must be followed. In some cases, people may want to skip past the prosecution and judgment, and go straight to punishment. But we have to check all the boxes and get to that place to make sure the system is an honest one constitutionally.”

Cunniff cited the ongoing case of former prosecutor James Cameron of Hallowell, who was convicted on child pornography charges and sentenced in March 2011 to 16 years in federal prison. Cameron has appealed the case, arguing in part that access to password-protected spaces online should not have been allowed without search warrants specific to those spaces — much like how specific search warrants would be needed to crack open locked safes in the physical world.

Cunniff, whose law firm McCloskey, Mina & Cunniff LLC is representing Cameron, said electronic evidence can be dangerous to use against a suspect in a criminal case. If a seizure and search of a computer device is deemed unlawful in court, he said, all subsequent discoveries made following the clues found on the devices will likely be thrown out as well.

Pratt said searching a computer or laptop is “tantamount to searching somebody’s house,” and it’s generally treated the same way legally.

“If [the Supreme Court justices], hypothetically, found that evidence of the electronic nature should not have been considered, they could vacate the guilty verdict and remand it back for a new trial, or for additional proceedings consistent with their ruling,” Pratt told the Bangor Daily News.

But Pratt said the high court could also find the wrongful admission of electronic evidence a “harmless error, because sufficient or adequate evidence otherwise exists to sustain a conviction.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.