July 3, 2010

SPECIAL REPORT, PART 1: Did Dennis Dechaine kill Sarah Cherry?

By Trevor Maxwell tmaxwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

WARREN — The prisoner says he is tired of telling the story.

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Investigators are still trying to identify the source of the male DNA
found under one of Sarah Cherry’s thumbnails, but prosecutors
maintain that Dennis Dechaine was convicted properly of killing her
and that the DNA is irrelevant because of the likelihood that the
evidence was contaminated during an autopsy.

But there’s a court hearing on the horizon that could be his last chance at a new trial. There are some things that he wants the public to hear again.

So Dennis Dechaine answers the same questions the officers asked on that summer night in the woods of Bowdoin in 1988. Did you take the girl? Did you kill Sarah Cherry?

“I’m not the guy who did this,” Dechaine said during a March 22 interview at the Maine State Prison. “Somebody, somewhere in their heart of hearts at the state level has to know this.

“It is a nightmare,” Dechaine said.

The Dechaine case occupies a unique position in Maine’s collective consciousness.

No other case has been litigated in Maine’s court system for so long  — almost 22 years and counting.

Maine knows Dennis Dechaine, inmate #1725, as the farmer convicted for one of the most shocking crimes in state history — the kidnapping, torture and murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry. Most Mainers also know that Dechaine, now 52, has maintained his innocence, and a large group of backers has provided the emotional and financial support behind his quest for a new trial.

In four appeals, state and federal judges have upheld the conviction and life sentence.

But he will get at least one more shot.

Sometime this fall, a judge is expected to decide whether Dechaine should get a new trial based primarily on a microscopic fragment of unidentified male DNA extracted from Sarah Cherry’s clipped thumbnail.

His lawyers must convince Superior Court Justice Carl O. Bradford — who presided at the 1989 trial — that the jury likely would have acquitted Dechaine if they had known about the thumbnail evidence. The lawyers also will ask Bradford to consider two forensic reports suggesting Dechaine could not have committed the crime. The hearing is tentatively set for September.

“We only get one shot at getting this right,” said attorney Steve Peterson of Rockport, who has worked on the case since 2003 and has been Dechaine’s lead defense lawyer since the fall of 2007.

“It’s his last, best chance,” Peterson said.

William Stokes, head of the Criminal Division at the state’s Attorney General’s Office, will argue that Dechaine does not deserve a new trial. The only mystery, as far as Stokes is concerned, is why the case has not been closed for good.

“When you have been given so many opportunities to make your case, and you haven’t done it, there’s that point where the family of the victim should get some finality,” Stokes said.

An incomparable case
The coming court battle was made possible by a state law enacted in 2001, and revised in 2006 at the urging of Dechaine’s supporters.

The law allows prisoners to seek new trials based on DNA evidence.

Only a handful of prisoners have filed motions based on the law, and Dechaine’s motion would be the first to go before a judge if the hearing takes place as scheduled.

“In terms of public interest, there have been no other cases that compare to the Dechaine case. Never. Not even close,” said prominent Augusta defense lawyer Walt McKee, who is not involved.

“Everybody has got their own take on the case,” McKee said. “The first school of thought is that he had a trial with excellent lawyers on each side, the jury ruled, and how long do we have to go through this. On the other hand, there’s the thought that the jury didn’t hear some information that we now have, so let’s put it in front of a new jury and let them decide.”

(Continued on page 2)

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