Image: Brian Rooney
Glenn Russell  /  AP
Brian Rooney, in court in May, proclaimed his innocence as he was sentenced Friday in the killing of a college senior.
updated 10/17/2008 2:52:19 PM ET 2008-10-17T18:52:19

Berated as "evil" and "the lowest of the low," a man convicted of killing a college senior after a chance encounter was sentenced Friday to life without parole, despite proclaiming his innocence to the end.

Brian Rooney, a 38-year-old construction worker and father of three, fought back tears as he expressed condolences to the mother and father of Michelle Gardner-Quinn but said he wasn't her killer.

"I am so sorry for what you are going through, but I am not the man responsible for this tragic event. And it saddens me to have to tell you that," he said.

Gardner-Quinn was 21 and had just transferred to the University of Vermont when she happened upon Rooney on a downtown Burlington street on Oct. 7, 2006. Her cell phone had gone dead and she asked to borrow his. They were seen on surveillance camera images walking past a jewelry store, but she vanished after that.

Six days later, her half-dressed body was found covered with leaves and stuffed into a rock crevice at scenic Huntington Gorge.

She had been sexually assaulted, beaten and strangled after a night out with friends while her parents were in town for homecoming weekend.

DNA evidence was crucial
Rooney was convicted largely on the strength of DNA evidence taken from semen found inside her body in an autopsy.

Image: Michelle Gardner-Quinn
AP
Michelle Gardner-Quinn had been sexually assaulted, beaten and strangled after a night out with friends while her parents were in town for homecoming weekend.
The trial was moved from Burlington to Rutland — about 70 miles — amid concerns that publicity had tainted the jury pool in a case that sent a shudder through Vermont, where there is no death penalty.

Rooney's lawyer argued during his trial that the state's case lacked witnesses to the abduction and killing, and hinged on "two nanograms of sperm" handled by a forensic lab with a history of sloppy work.

Under Vermont law, the only available sentence for aggravated murder is life without parole. Before Judge Michael Kupersmith sentenced Rooney on Friday, Gardner-Quinn's mother — sitting with her husband at her side — calmly described going to the morgue to identify her daughter's battered body.

"There are some people that are so bound in evil, so choked by evil, that they cannot change. And for these people, I feel the death penalty is appropriate," said Diane Gardner Quinn of Arlington, Va.

Rooney, who fired his attorney after the trial and tried to boycott his sentencing, said this week in a letter to the court that he had been the victim of a "public and judicial lynching."

But Kupersmith berated him Friday: "You are the lowest of the low."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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