A Peabody man accused of willfully strangling his girlfriend at their shared apartment in 2008 was found guilty by a jury Monday of first-degree murder.
Ashley Fernandes, 32, of Peabody, was then handed a mandatory life sentence without parole for the murder of Jessica Herrera, 25, of Peabody, a mother of two.
The case began two weeks ago in Salem Superior Court with jury selection and quickly moved to opening statements by the prosecution and defense. Closing arguments were made Friday. The jury announced its decision Monday.
Fernandes and Herrera shared an apartment together on Oak Street at the time of Herrera's death on April 5, 2008, although she was actually scheduled to testify against Fernandes in a domestic abuse case when her body was found in a closet in the Oak Street apartment.
Essex Assistant District Attorney Kate MacDougall successfully argued before jurors that Fernandes did in fact kill Herrera to prevent her from testifying against him in that case, which would have been heard just a week after her death, and because she was planning to leave him.
Fernandes was represented by attorneys Aviva Jeruchim and David Grimaldi. His defense rested on trying to convince jurors Herrera's death was a crime of passion, which would have meant a lesser charge of manslaughter.
The Salem News reports that Jeruchim argued that infidelity, alcohol abuse and demands for money by Herrera drove Fernandes to lash out violently.
MacDougall, however, said intent to murder doesn't require extensive planning beforehand, although there appeared to be plenty of intent.
She argued Fernandes knew exactly what he was doing when he strangled Herrera to death, wrapped her body in a blanket and placed it in a closet. In fact, he had threatened to kill her before and talked with coworkers about how he might get away with the crime if he were home in India.
The DA's office says MacDougall presented evidence during the trial that demonstrated Fernandes took photographs of the victim during or just after the murder and later went to a Beverly restaurant where he sat at the bar and told another patron, Kenneth Morse, that his girlfriend was dead. Morse then contacted police, resulting in the initial discovery of Herrera's body in the apartment.
“He [Morse] really is a hero in this case,” MacDougall said.
“Domestic violence is about power and control. As this case illustrates, batterers will often try to blame the victim while the victim faces greater risks when attempting to leave," said DA Jonathan Blodgett in a statement. "As District Attorney, I will continue to work with domestic violence agencies to ensure that victims have access to services while also holding batterers accountable for their actions.”
MacDougall was assisted by ADA Karen Hopwood in this case, along with Essex Victim Witness Advocate Kathy Draper, who provided support and services to Herrera’s family.
MacDougall praised the work of the Peabody Police Department and state police detectives assigned to Blodgett's office for their help in the investigation.