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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

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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

While DNA findings had not yet been admitted in a Maine court, the state Attorney General’s Office was using the technology by the summer of 1988. Several months before Dechaine made his request, the state sent out items for testing at a commercial lab in New York in connection with a homicide in Fayette.

A hearing on Dechaine’s request for DNA testing was held in front of Justice Bradford on Jan. 27, 1989.

The judge relied primarily on input from Brinkman, who had spoken with staffers at a lab in California. They thought the chances of getting usable results were remote, because of the small amount of blood on the nails.

In light of Brinkman’s testimony and the other evidence in the case, Bradford denied the request for testing, which would have delayed the trial for at least a few months.

“I have never gotten over the fact that the judge ruled against me,” Dechaine said. “My personal feeling is that there was one overlying reason, and that was that it was simply inconvenient to the court schedule.”

Connolly, Dechaine’s trial lawyer, blames himself for not pushing harder for pretrial DNA testing. Connolly said he failed to bring in his own expert to argue against Brinkman and the state prosecutors.

“I wasn’t hanging my hat on the DNA at the time. I thought we were going to win with or without it,” Connolly said during an interview at his office in March.

“It was only after the verdict that I realized the enormity of it.”

LONG, STRANGE JOURNEY FOR CLIPPINGS

But Connolly did one thing that has essentially kept the case open ever since: During the trial, he placed a defense exhibit sticker on the sealed envelope that contained Sarah’s thumbnails, even though they technically belonged to the state.

Then he got a letter from court officials in 1992, saying the exhibits would be destroyed if the lawyers did not pick them up. After writing back to make sure there was not some mistake, Connolly picked up the envelope.

Connolly sent the package for DNA testing at CBR Laboratories in Boston, using money raised by Dechaine’s supporters.

State prosecutors found out that Connolly had the nails, and he returned them to state officials under an order from Bradford in late 1993. The results from the lab came back in 1994, showing a mixture of Sarah’s blood with DNA from an unknown individual, not Dechaine.

Dechaine filed two court appeals in the years following the discovery of the thumbnail DNA – a petition for post-conviction review with the state supreme court in 1995, and a federal habeas corpus petition in 2000 – asking the court to decide the legality of his imprisonment. Connolly resigned as Dechaine’s lawyer in 1995 because the appeal focused on the claim that Connolly had provided ineffective counsel.

In both appeals, judges determined that the case did not merit any new hearings.
State supreme court Justice Donald Marden and U.S. Magistrate Judge David Cohen, in written opinions, said that even with knowledge of the thumbnail DNA, a reasonable juror could have found Dechaine guilty.

“The presence of a DNA profile inconsistent with those of either Cherry or Dechaine does not in itself undermine the weight of the evidence against Dechaine,” Cohen wrote.

DOORS OPEN FOR DNA APPEALS

Just as it seemed that Dechaine had exhausted all of his legal options, the Maine Legislature in 2001 passed a law giving prisoners the right to seek new trials based on DNA evidence.

Dechaine’s new lawyer, M. Michaela Murphy of Waterville, filed a motion for a new trial in May 2003.

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