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July 16, 2010

Can a trace of DNA change this man’s fate?

By Trevor Maxwell tmaxwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

In prisoner Dennis Dechaine’s latest bid for a new trial, the key piece of evidence is actually old news.

click image to enlarge

Accompanied by his attorney Steve Peterson, Dennis Dechaine listens to a reporter's questions during an interview at the Maine State Prison in Warren on March 22. With a new appeal more than two decades after his conviction in the death of Sarah Cherry, no other case has been litigated in Maine's court system for so long.

March 2010 photo by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Thomas Connolly, the Portland lawyer who represented Dennis Dechaine at his 1989 trial, says he regrets not pushing harder for pretrial DNA testing. "I wasn't hanging my hat on the DNA at the time," Connolly said this spring. "It was only after the verdict that I realized the enormity of it.'

December 2006 file photo/The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram

It is a fragment of unidentified male DNA, extracted by scientists in 1994 from a thumbnail clipping of 12-year-old murder victim Sarah Cherry.

Dechaine was convicted of the murder in 1989 and is serving a life sentence. He says he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that another man set him up.

Prosecutors say the right man is behind bars.

Although the mystery DNA was discovered 16 years ago, an upcoming court hearing would be the first time for that evidence to be considered by a judge. It took a new state law in 2001, a revision of that law in 2006, additional genetic tests on the thumbnail by the state and the defense, and a great deal of legal wrangling to reach this point.

At the hearing, tentatively scheduled for September, Dechaine’s legal team must convince a judge that jurors in 1989 probably would have acquitted him if they had known about the thumbnail DNA.

His lawyers also will ask Justice Carl O. Bradford to consider other evidence in the case, such as recently obtained opinions about Sarah Cherry’s time of death, and information about alternate suspects.

But the crux of the motion is the DNA, whether it will be deemed credible by the judge, and whether it raises enough doubt for a new trial to be granted in one of Maine’s most notorious homicides.

“That is overwhelming evidence, in our view, that it was not Dennis Dechaine who did this,” said his attorney, Steve Peterson of Rockport.

‘THIS CAN’T ... BE RANDOM’

Sarah Cherry was abducted while baby-sitting at a home in Bowdoin on July 6, 1988. Her body was found two days later, in the woods about three miles north of the home.

Her wrists were tied together in front of her chest. A gag had been placed in her mouth and a scarf was wrapped around her neck. The killer sexually assaulted her with sticks, and tortured her with a small blade before strangling her.

Papers belonging to Dechaine were found in the driveway of the house where Sarah had been baby-sitting.

His truck was found about 450 feet from the body. The rope and scarf used to commit the crime had come from Dechaine’s truck. He walked out of the woods on the night of July 6 in the general vicinity of his truck and Sarah Cherry’s body.

Dechaine maintains that he went into the woods that afternoon to inject drugs and to wander around. He says he was alone the whole day, got lost, and someone must have grabbed his papers, the rope and the scarf from his truck.

“I offered up my truck willingly for them to go through,” Dechaine said during a March 22 interview at the Maine State Prison in Warren.

“They went through it microscopically. There was absolutely no proof that Sarah Cherry had ever been in my vehicle.

There’s no proof that Sarah Cherry ever knew me, or that I ever knew her.

“And there is no doubt in my mind that whoever took Sarah Cherry knew who she was and where she was. This can’t possibly be random.”

Dechaine hopes his defense team will be able to obtain DNA samples from a number of people, including a list of alternate suspects put together by private investigators who have worked on his behalf.

DNA ‘DOESN’T SHOW ANYTHING’

State prosecutors say Dechaine murdered Sarah Cherry, the evidence proved it, and the DNA is irrelevant.

The thumbnail was subject to possible contamination both during the autopsy and during the year it was in the custody of Dechaine’s trial lawyer, Tom Connolly, said William Stokes, head of the criminal division at the state Attorney General’s Office.

(Continued on page 2)

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