PORTLAND — Further testing of evidence from the 1988 murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry has revealed male DNA on the girl’s T-shirt, her bra and the scarf that was used to strangle her.
It’s too early to know what the implications are for Cherry’s convicted killer, Dennis Dechaine.
The DNA has not yet been compared with any other samples, including DNA from Dechaine, men who worked on the investigation or the felons in a state database.
“The thing we’re hoping for — of course, we could have it backfire on us — is that this could prove it’s not Dennis Dechaine,” said Steve Peterson, Dechaine’s court-appointed lawyer.
Dechaine, 54, is serving a life sentence for murdering Cherry, a Bowdoin Central School student who was kidnapped while babysitting on July 6, 1988. He maintains that he did not commit the crime.
Dechaine is in the midst of a long-running appeal to win a new trial. To do so, he must convince a judge that jurors would not have convicted him had they known about DNA evidence found on Cherry’s thumbnail.
His defense contends that the unidentified male DNA from the nail clipped during the girl’s autopsy points to another suspect.
The bra, the T-shirt and the scarf had been tested previously, and were re-tested this summer with a scraping method that had not been used. All of the DNA came from one male, according to a report by Orchard Cellmark, the Dallas-based firm that did the analysis.
“We don’t know what it means” yet, the prosecutor, Deputy Attorney General William Stokes, said Monday of the latest test results.
Stokes has argued that the state and jurors who convicted Dechaine already know who killed Sarah Cherry. He has described the thumbnail DNA found previously as “meaningless.”
The DNA from the partial thumbnail clipping was the focus of a multiday hearing in June.
Expert witnesses for the prosecution testified that autopsy conditions at the time, when DNA technology was still emerging, created a high risk for contamination and unreliable test results.
But a defense witness said contamination doesn’t appear to be an issue because the unknown DNA was not on the other half of the nail clipping, which would have been subjected to the same handling, instrument and conditions.
Peterson said that if the newly found DNA matches the DNA from the thumbnail, that would corroborate the defense’s position that the nail clipping was not contaminated.
The parties may reconvene the hearing, depending on the results of the latest testing. Superior Court Justice Carl Bradford ultimately will decide whether the evidence warrants a new trial.
Several items were tested this summer with a relatively new scraping method to gather microscopic bits of skin cells, Peterson said. Essentially, the material is pulled taut and a razor is used to scrape the surface toward a receptacle, he said.
The front bottom and underside of the girl’s T-shirt, the inside and outside of her bra and one end of the scarf yielded the DNA.
While there was one common male source for all three, DNA from at least one other male was found as well.
The T-shirt had a mixture that appeared to be from two males, and the scarf had a mixture from at least two males, according to the report by Orchard Cellmark.
Dechaine became a suspect in the killing after a notebook and a truck repair bill with his name were discovered in the driveway of the home where Cherry was babysitting on the day she disappeared.
Dechaine, then a 30-year-old farmer from Bowdoinham, was seen walking out of the woods about three miles away that day. His pickup truck was found nearby that night.
Sarah Cherry’s body was found two days later, about 450 feet from where the truck had been parked. The scarf and the rope that were used to tie her had come from the truck.
Dechaine said someone must have taken the items from his truck. He said he was injecting “speed” in the woods and got lost.
Dechaine has made four unsuccessful appeals.
The Legislature passed a law in 2001 giving prisoners the right to seek new trials based on DNA evidence. It revised the law in 2006 to reduce the burden on the prisoner, from having to prove that the DNA came from the real perpetrator to showing that the evidence likely would have led to an acquittal.
Dechaine’s current attempt for another trial began in August 2008, when Peterson filed a petition based on the change in state law.
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]