Prisoner Dennis Dechaine, in his first interview with the media since his suicide attempt in April, said Friday he believes prosecutors have charged him with trafficking in prison contraband as payback for his outspokenness about his case, and also to undermine his pending motion for a new trial.
“This is nothing more than a political ploy,” Dechaine said in a 30-minute telephone interview from the mental health unit at the Maine State Prison in Warren.
“I think it’s a case of kicking a man when he is down,” he said.
Chris Fernald, an assistant district attorney for Knox County, declined to comment specifically about the trafficking charge against Dechaine, which was handed up by a grand jury July 15. But Fernald said it is not uncommon for prisoners serving life sentences to be charged with other crimes during their incarcerations.
“If we didn’t prosecute these individuals, then basically the message would be sent to the inmates that if you are serving a life sentence you can do anything you want,” Fernald said.
Dechaine, 52, was convicted by a jury and sent to prison for life for the 1988 kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry in the small Sagadahoc County town of Bowdoin. He claims that he is innocent, but four court appeals at the state and federal levels have failed.
His latest motion for a new trial, filed by his attorney in August 2008, is tentatively set to be heard by a judge in September.
Dechaine said he tried to commit suicide on April 4 by overdosing on a combination of morphine and Klonopin inside his cell. The next morning, guards found him unconscious, with an extremely low pulse rate and blood pressure. He was taken by helicopter to a Portland hospital, where he spent the next two weeks recovering before being sent back to the prison.
The Department of Corrections investigated the incident and Knox County prosecutors sought charges against him. No date has been set for his arraignment.
Until Friday, Dechaine had been off limits to the media since his hospitalization. A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections has said there were several reasons for prohibiting interviews of Dechaine in that time frame, but she said those reasons are confidential.
The suicide attempt raised questions about why Dechaine would try to end his life when he is just months away from a court hearing that has been described by his attorney as Dechaine’s “last, best chance” at getting a new trial.
On Friday, Dechaine explained that by early April the cumulative impact of his years in prison had pushed him to a state of despair. Also, he came to believe that his appeal could not succeed, particularly because it will be heard by the same judge who sentenced him.
But even more than his doubts about the court proceedings, Dechaine said he arrived at the suicide decision because he felt that the life he could have had outside of prison had already been lost.
“Even if I do overturn my case, the best years of my life have been taken from me,” he said. “I can’t start a family. I’m too old to start a business. That is depressing.”
“Oddly enough, what I sensed when I made the decision (to kill myself) was a sense of relief,” Dechaine said.
He said he was devastated when he regained consciousness at Maine Medical Center. Dechaine said his outlook on life improved during his hospital stay thanks to the kindness of the medical staff, but that outlook deteriorated when he was returned to the prison. He said he has never attempted suicide before, and this is the first time that he has been housed in the prison’s mental health unit, which consists of two areas of 16 cells.
For the first two weeks back, Dechaine said, he was on a strict suicide watch and he was not allowed to have any items in his cell except for a thin pad on the floor on which he slept. He said he now has a bunk and has been provided some reading and writing materials. He is allowed one hour per week for approved visitors such as family members, he said.
Dechaine said he was not taking any medications before his suicide attempt. He declined to say how he obtained the drugs he used on April 4, and said he has not answered questions about that from Department of Corrections investigators, because he is concerned about retribution.
In the mental health unit, Dechaine meets for one hour a week with a counselor, he said, and the only drug he is taking is a blood thinner to treat the effects of a clot suffered in the suicide attempt.
Dechaine said he has asked to be returned to the general prison population, but so far the request has been denied.
“It doesn’t look promising,” he said.
Dechaine’s pending motion is based on a state law originally passed in 2001 and revised in 2006 that allows prisoners to seek new trials based on DNA evidence.
The evidence in question is a fragment of unidentified male DNA extracted from Sarah Cherry’s clipped thumbnail five years after Dechaine’s conviction. His attorney says the partial DNA profile discovered by scientists holds the key to finding the real killer. Prosecutors say the right man is behind bars, and the DNA could have come from any incidental contact Sarah Cherry had leading up to her death, or from contaminated nail clippers at her autopsy.
Sarah Cherry, a straight-A student at Bowdoin Central School, was kidnapped while baby-sitting on July 6, 1988.
The mother who had hired her to baby-sit came home around 3:20 p.m. and found a notebook and a receipt in her driveway, bearing the name Dennis Dechaine. Police began a search for both the missing girl and Dechaine, and about five hours later he was seen walking out of the woods about three miles north of the home where Sarah had been baby-sitting.
He told police that he had been fishing and had gotten lost and he could not find his truck. He denied having anything to do with Sarah’s disappearance. Later that night, police found his pickup truck on a discontinued logging road nearby.
A search team found Sarah’s body around noon on July 8, in the woods near the spot where Dechaine’s truck was found. She had been stabbed about a dozen times, and was strangled to death with a scarf. The rope binding her wrists and the scarf had come from Dechaine’s truck.
Dechaine says he went into the woods on July 6 to inject speed and to wander around. He claims he was alone the whole day, got lost, and someone must have grabbed his papers, the rope and the scarf from his truck.
Dechaine sounded despondent during the interview Friday, and while he did not expressly say that he was still suicidal, he indicated that his will to live was not strong.
“I’d rather not be here,” Dechaine said.
When asked if he meant the prison’s Special Management Unit, or if he meant he did not want to be alive, he said: “I’d rather not be here. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: