AUBURN – Francoise Gallant returned to jail Wednesday knowing that he would likely die in prison.

It took a jury 35 minutes to convict Gallant of murdering his girlfriend in January. The 54-year-old former janitor will not be sentenced for another two weeks.

But, according to his lawyer, the length of the sentence will not matter much.

A murder conviction carries a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison, and Gallant knows that his failing liver – poisoned by decades of heavy drinking – will not last that long.

“He sees the conviction as a life sentence,” Gallant’s lawyer, James Howaniec, said after the trial.

Gallant has never denied that he was the one who strangled Cherie Ann Andrews in her Park Street, Lewiston, apartment on Jan. 24.

His lawyer attempted to convince the jury that he was not guilty of murder because he was too drunk, high and depressed to know what he was doing when he wrapped a towel around her neck and pulled until she stopped breathing.

Gallant testified that he and Andrews spent the day as they usually do – drinking booze and popping pills. He claimed that he consumed more than 30 beers and 15 anti-anxiety pills during the 12 hours between waking up and leaving Andrews dead on her bed.

He testified that he didn’t mean to kill the 43-year-old mother of two. He simply wanted to stop her from her screaming before a neighbor heard her and called police.

In order to convict Gallant of murder, the jurors had to find that Gallant intended to kill Andrews when he pulled on the towel. They also had the option of convicting him of manslaughter, a less serious charge for people who kill someone by acting recklessly or negligently.

“Obviously, it was a difficult case,” Howaniec said. “I certainly see a rational basis for the jury’s decision.”

No choice

Howaniec said he had no choice but to take the case to trial because the state refused to offer Gallant a better deal. During discussions about a plea agreement, the Maine Attorney General’s Office wouldn’t agree to anything but murder.

Under those circumstances, Howaniec said, “I think we presented the best case we could.”

After the court officer announced at 1:30 p.m. that the jury reached a verdict, Gallant was brought back into the courtroom. He looked at his watch and sat down.

Minutes later, when the jury foreman announced the verdict, Gallant turned to look at a woman crying in the back of the room. It was Andrews’ only daughter, Karrie Mitchell.

The 25-year-old traveled nine hours from her home in upstate New York to attend the trial. Gallant used to tell Mitchell that she looked like her mother, and Mitchell wanted him to see her face and remember.

“I just want the image to be burned in his mind,” she said.

Mitchell met Gallant many times over the course of her mother’s 16-month relationship with him.

They celebrated holidays together and he watched Mitchell’s children. She thought Gallant would help her mother get through life. She was shocked when she found out what happened.

“I couldn’t be more relieved by the verdict,” she said Wednesday. “I was so worried that he would get out and do it to someone else.”

A minute

Mitchell sobbed during the part of the trial when the medical examiner explained that it takes 15 to 20 seconds of choking someone to the point of unconsciousness, and it takes another minute to a minute and a half of constant pressure to kill the person.

Assistant Attorney General Fern LaRochelle used this statistic in his closing argument to prove that Gallant intended to kill Andrews.

“A minute. It doesn’t sound like a lot of time,” LaRochelle said. “But let me try something.”

The prosecutor took off his watch, looked down at it and started repeating the same words over and over again.

“You have a towel wrapped around a person’s neck. You start squeezing. You’re still squeezing, still squeezing and pulling, still squeezing and pulling. And you continue to pull. And you continue. And continue. And it’s only 15 seconds,” he said slowly, methodically.

LaRochelle repeated the same phrases for another 45 seconds. Then he stopped.

“Now if that isn’t an intent to kill, I don’t know what is,” he said. “Mr. Gallant wanted to do more than to stop (Andrews) from screaming. That is why he grabbed the towel, that is why he wrapped it around her neck and that is why he continued to pull. That, ladies and gentlemen, is murder.”

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