PORTLAND – A preliminary hearing is scheduled today in Dennis Dechaine’s long-running bid to get a new trial in his murder case.

Dechaine, 53, 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. He has maintained that he is innocent, but four appeals have been unsuccessful at the state and federal levels.

Dechaine’s latest motion for a new trial was filed in August 2008. The sides have been bogged down for nearly three years in discussions about how to do additional DNA testing on the evidence. Some results from those tests have come back from a private laboratory, but they are sealed by court orders. Other test results are pending.

Justice Carl O. Bradford, who presided over the 1989 trial, is expected to hear arguments today on three defense motions.

Dechaine’s lead attorney, Steve Peterson of Rockport, has filed a motion for Bradford to recuse himself from the case; a motion to present time-of-death evidence at the broader hearing on the bid for a new trial; and a motion to compare a DNA fragment found on Sarah Cherry’s body with the state’s DNA database of convicted felons.

The hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. in Cumberland County Superior Court. Dechaine, serving his sentence at Maine State Prison in Warren, will not be at the hearing.

Peterson said Bradford should allow another judge to hear the appeal, because of the unique history of the case.

“We have a judge who, prior to the trial, denied the petitioner’s request to have DNA testing done at his own expense,” Peterson said. “This is the very same judge who is going to decide whether Dennis gets a new trial based on DNA testing.

“It puts the judge in a very tough position,” Peterson said.

The key piece of evidence in the appeal is a fragment of unidentified male DNA. It was extracted by scientists from a thumbnail that was clipped from Sarah Cherry during her autopsy, and it was not a match for Dechaine, law enforcement officers who handled the body, or the girl’s family members. Peterson says the thumbnail DNA 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 clippers used in her autopsy.

Peterson said the DNA fragment was compared with the state’s CODIS database in 2004 and returned nine possible matches. Those hits were investigated further by the state’s criminal division, which ruled out all of them as potential alternate suspects in Sarah Cherry’s murder.

The state database is far more extensive than it was in 2004, and the process should be done again, Peterson argues.

William Stokes, head of the criminal division of the state Attorney General’s Office, said the quality of the DNA fragment is not good enough to provide reliable comparisons.

“The difficulty here is that we have such an incomplete profile, you are never going to be able to do anything with it in terms of identifying anyone,” Stokes said.

Regarding the motion to expand the scope of evidence allowed at the future hearing on Dechaine’s bid for a new trial, Stokes noted Bradford’s ruling in November, which said time-of-death evidence will not be allowed.

“Our position is that this has already been decided,” Stokes said.

He also said there is no reason that Bradford should be recused. Stokes said Maine law specifically calls for the original trial judge to preside over post-conviction appeals, if possible, primarily because that judge has the most knowledge about the case.

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

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