AUGUSTA (AP) – A Portland man accused of fatally beating his one-time girlfriend after a night of drinking last May was found guilty of murder Friday.

A Kennebec County Superior Court jury weighed the evidence for just under three hours before returning its verdict against Gregory Erskine, 51.

After breaking off deliberations to ask the judge to go over the differences between murder and manslaughter, the panel went back to work and came back with its murder verdict a short time later.

Erskine, who maintained that the death of Lisa Deprez was accidental, showed little emotion when the verdict was announced. Relatives of the victim responded with hugs and expressions of relief.

Erskine faces a minimum of 25 years in prison and a maximum of life. During closing arguments, the prosecution characterized the case as one of ongoing domestic abuse that ended in tragedy, while the defense sought to portray what had happened as a tragic accident.

Defense counsel Robert Ruffner said Deprez was drunk on May 13, 2004, and likely hit her head when she fell while changing her clothes in her Portland apartment. Deprez was rushed to Maine Medical Center and died two days later from a swollen brain caused by a lack of oxygen that Ruffner said probably resulted from the accidental fall. Assistant Attorney General Fernand LaRochelle told jurors in his summation that Erskine hit Deprez on the head with a hammer and then smothered her by putting his hand over her mouth because she was screaming.

Domestic violence advocates say Deprez’ death exposed shortcomings in the state’s criminal-reporting system because just days earlier, Erskine had been arrested for threatening her life and then released on bail.

Erskine was arrested the night of Deprez’ injury when police forced their way into her apartment on Cumberland Avenue after getting a 911 call from neighbors who heard a woman calling for help.

The officers found Deprez unconscious, lying on the floor of her bedroom, fresh blood on her face and matted in her hair. Erskine slipped out of a closet and ran down three flights of stairs into the street, where he was stopped by other officers. He had Deprez’s blood on his hands and clothing.

A videotape of more than three hours of the police interview of Erskine that night was played for jurors Thursday by Erskine’s defense lawyers.

Erskine told detectives that he pawned his stereo so he and Deprez could go drinking at a Portland bar. Around 8 p.m., they went back to Deprez’ apartment planning to buy some groceries and eat dinner. Under his bail conditions, Erskine was not supposed to be anywhere around Deprez, but he said she had invited him to live with her.

At the apartment, Erskine told detectives, the two got into an argument and Deprez started yelling.

“I think she was just (angry) about there was not enough money for what she wanted to do and we had to stay home and there was nothing to do,” he said.

Erskine said he remembered putting his hand over her mouth to stop her from yelling, because he was afraid someone would call the police and he would be sent to jail. At one point, he remembered being on top of her, pushing down on her mouth for as long as a minute. When he heard police knock on the door, he hid in a closet.

LaRochelle told the jury that Erskine did more than that. The head of a hammer found in Deprez’ bedroom matched a small indentation on the back of the victim’s head, LaRochelle said. Her DNA was found on the hammer head.

“This piece of evidence, in the state’s view, is what makes this killing a (murder)” LaRochelle said, holding the hammer.

But Ruffner said there was no evidence that Erskine ever hit Deprez with the hammer. DNA can be transferred to a hammer by handling it, he said, and other items could have caused the wound to Deprez’ head.

The hammer was found in a closed drawer in Deprez’ bedroom, and even though Erskine had blood on both hands, there was no blood on the hammer or the drawer.

The trial was moved to Augusta because of the intensive news coverage that the case generated in the Portland area.

AP-ES-01-28-05 1238EST

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