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July 16, 2010

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

By Trevor Maxwell
Staff Writer

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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

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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

“Our position has been that the most likely source of that DNA is contamination at the time of the autopsy, since nail clippers were reused from autopsy to autopsy at that time and were stored in a way that was conducive to contamination,” Stokes said.

Clippers, blades and other equipment used by medical examiners in 1988, he said, were stored in a toolbox lined with a towel.

While scientists have confirmed the existence of the DNA on Sarah Cherry’s thumbnail, they cannot say what type of material it is. It could be from blood, saliva or even a particle of skin. The only other biological material found on the thumbnail was her own blood.

Stokes said there was no evidence suggesting that Sarah Cherry had scratched her killer; state chemists found no tissue underneath her fingernails.

Even if the unknown DNA somehow got transferred to the thumbnail before her death, that doesn’t prove someone else killed her, Stokes said. Unlike a rape case, where a sperm sample can identify or clear a defendant, DNA on a murder victim’s fingers doesn’t automatically identify the killer.

“What does the DNA prove? From our perspective, it doesn’t show anything.”


The male DNA profile found on Sarah Cherry’s thumbnail is incomplete; there is enough genetic material to rule out most people as the source, but there is not enough to conclusively identify an individual.

In 2004, the state crime lab ran the partial profile through a database containing DNA profiles of convicted felons in Maine. Seven possible matches were identified.

Crime lab officials reviewed the histories of the men, and conducted further analysis on the DNA profiles, and ruled them out as potential suspects.

The list of the convicts whose DNA matched the partial profile on the thumbnail remains under seal by an order of the court.

“With partial profiles, you have to be careful because you may actually implicate a lot of innocent people,” Stokes said. “We just don’t have enough of a profile to make a perfect match.”
Dechaine criticized the Attorney General’s Office for not doing more to determine the source of the DNA.

“Is that really why we hire prosecutors? Is that why we hire police?” he said. “It would seem to me that anything that could be examined and investigated should be. I would obviously put DNA at the top of that list.”

Although neither side has determined whose DNA is on Sarah Cherry’s thumbnail, they have ruled out more than a dozen people who had contact with her.

Lawyers who handled the evidence envelopes, police officers and members of the Medical Examiner’s Office were all tested and excluded. Family members of Sarah Cherry also were ruled out.

Peterson said the defense also reviewed some autopsies that were performed before Sarah’s body was delivered to the Medical Examiner’s Office. None of the autopsies reviewed provided a match.


After Sarah Cherry’s fingernails were clipped during her autopsy in July 1988, a state chemist used up all of them – except for the thumbnails – while testing for blood types.

Chemist Judith Brinkman determined that the blood found on her fingernails was a match for Sarah. Because her hands had been bound in front of her body, the blood likely was transferred as Sarah groped at her upper chest and neck, where she had been stabbed repeatedly.

About three months before his trial was set to begin, Dechaine asked for a continuance and for DNA testing of the bloodstained thumbnails.

DNA profiling was considered pioneer science at the time. In 1988, an appeals court in Florida was the first U.S. court to admit DNA findings as evidence. Courts around the country were developing standards for how DNA evidence would be handled by lawyers, judges and juries.

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