Dennis Dechaine, who is serving a life sentence for murdering a 12-year-old girl in 1988, says he tried to kill himself with prescription drugs earlier this year.
In a letter sent this week to Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell, Dechaine said he “ingested a combination of prescription drugs in an attempt to end my life” in early April at the Maine State Prison in Warren.
A grand jury in Knox County indicted Dechaine this week on a charge of trafficking in prison contraband. Dechaine wrote in the letter to the newspaper that he acknowledged the suicide attempt publicly because he is being charged in the case.
Dechaine, 52, was convicted in 1989 of killing Sarah Cherry of Bowdoin. The Madawaska native has maintained his innocence through four unsuccessful appeals, and the case has been the subject of intense legal and media interest over the years.
This fall, the judge who presided at his trial is expected to hear arguments on whether Dechaine should get a new trial, based primarily on a fragment of unidentified male DNA extracted from Sarah Cherry’s clipped thumbnail.
Dechaine was hospitalized on April 5. His brother said Dechaine was near death, but prison officials have refused to comment, citing confidentiality laws.
According to the indictment issued Tuesday, Dechaine had morphine and Klonopine, a drug that’s used to treat seizure and panic disorders. No one else was indicted in connection with the incident, according to Geoffrey Rushlau, Knox County’s district attorney.
Dechaine wrote in his letter, dated July 10, “I have been imprisoned 22 years and the soul crushing monotony, boredom, institutional food, pervasive violence, 24 hour lights, near constant noise, harsh treatment, myriad petty rules, lack of resources, loss of potential, separation from family and friends, along with a raft of other negativity, simply conspired to erode my will to live.”
Dechaine’s letter detailed frustration with his case and called his suicide attempt “a reasonable response to an intolerable situation.”
Dechaine’s attorney, Steve Peterson, said he doesn’t expect the indictment to affect his client’s push for a new trial.
If Dechaine were convicted of trafficking before his hearing on the request for a new murder trial, it could be brought up at the hearing, Peterson said, but a rapid conviction is unlikely.
“I don’t know how much sense it makes to indict someone who’s already serving a life sentence,” Peterson said. “I’ve seen it happen before.”
Asked if some might see the suicide attempt as an admission of guilt, Peterson said he has seen the letter his client wrote and doesn’t think so.
“What it is, is a venting of how frustrated he is about being in jail and being wrongfully convicted,” Peterson said. “Trying to get this righted has been a very frustrating thing for him.”
Peterson said Dechaine is now in an exercise program at the prison and appears to be stable. “Whatever depression he was in that caused this to have happened seems to have passed,” he said.
Dechaine’s friends and family in Madawaska said they took the news of the attempted suicide hard.
“It was devastating for us,” said Carol Waltman, a friend of Dechaine’s since high school and the founder of Trial and Error, an advocacy group that maintains his innocence. “We’ve got to understand where he’s coming from. Being in a place like that, it’s a hellhole.”
Both Waltman and Don Dechaine, Dennis Dechaine’s older brother, were upset that he got prescription drugs in the first place.
Don Dechaine said people who visit inmates go through an intensive search. He said he believes the drugs had to have been smuggled in by a prison worker.
“They search, scan, there’s no way to receive any drugs,” Don Dechaine said. “It has to come from within the prison.”
He said he plans to talk with Peterson about filing a complaint with the state.
Denise Lord, associate commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said the department is continuing to investigate the circumstances.
“We’re concerned if drugs are coming, or are in the facility inappropriately or illegally,” Lord said. “We’re definitely looking into it.”
Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: