A hearing, tentatively scheduled for this fall, to determine whether Dennis Dechaine will get a new trial has been pushed back until at least December, and is more likely to be held next year.

Dechaine, 52, is serving a life sentence for the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry in 1988 in the Sagadahoc County town of Bowdoin.

Through four unsuccessful appeals at the state and federal levels, Dechaine has maintained that he is innocent. A large group of vocal supporters continues to lobby state officials and legislators on his behalf.

Dechaine’s latest motion for a new trial was filed in August 2008, but the sides have been bogged down for much of the past year in discussions about how to do additional DNA testing on some of the evidence, which is now more than 20 years old.

“There have been some delays, but now we’re seeing progress,” said Steve Peterson of Rockport, Dechaine’s lead attorney.

Peterson said the rope, bandana and scarf that were used in the girl’s murder will be analyzed at a private laboratory in Dallas, where scientists will search for DNA using an advanced scraping method. Sticks that were used to sexually assault the victim will be tested at the Maine State Police crime lab in Augusta. Previous testing on those items in the past decade failed to detect the DNA of anyone other than the 12-year-old victim. Peterson wants to be sure that nothing was missed.

The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services recently approved $4,500 for the tests.

“I don’t believe any of the actual testing has been done,” but it could begin any time, Peterson said. It will take several weeks for the labs to issue reports. “We’re hoping we can come up with some new DNA evidence.”

William Stokes, head of the criminal division of the state Attorney General’s Office, said he has tried to move the process along by facilitating discussions between scientists at the crime lab in Augusta with staffers at the private Orchid Cellmark laboratory in Dallas.

“Let’s get this thing going. That has been my basic position,” Stokes said.

Dechaine’s latest bid for a new trial is based primarily on a mysterious fragment of unidentified male DNA found during analysis of one of Cherry’s thumbnails. The partial DNA profile was not a match for Dechaine, law enforcement officers who handled the body, or members of the girl’s family. Peterson says that evidence holds the key to finding the killer.

Prosecutors say the right man is behind bars, and the DNA could have come from any incidental contact the girl had leading up to her death, or from contaminated nail clippers used in her autopsy.

To get a new trial, Dechaine’s lawyers must convince Superior Court Justice Carl O. Bradford that jurors likely would have acquitted Dechaine if they had known about the thumbnail evidence.

The defense team recently obtained two new forensic reports suggesting that Dechaine could not have committed the crime. They will ask Bradford to consider the reports.

Cherry was a straight-A student at Bowdoin Central School. She was kidnapped while baby-sitting on July 6, 1988.

The mother who had hired her to baby-sit came home about 3:20 p.m. and found a notebook and a receipt bearing the name Dennis Dechaine in her driveway. Police began a search for the missing girl and Dechaine. About five hours later, he was seen walking out of the woods about three miles north of the home where Cherry had been baby-sitting.

He told police that he had been fishing and gotten lost and he couldn’t find his truck. He denied having anything to do with the girl’s disappearance. Later that night, police found his pickup truck on a discontinued logging road nearby.

A search team found the girl’s body about 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 strangled 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 wander around. He says he was alone the entire day, he got lost, and someone must have grabbed his papers, the rope and the scarf from his truck.

 

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: [email protected]