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July 4, 2010

Did Dennis Dechaine kill Sarah Cherry?

By Trevor Maxwell
Staff Writer

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Thirty-year-old Dennis Dechaine of Bowdoinham is escorted to his arraignment in the slaying of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry on July 12, 1988, four days after his arrest. Dechaine has been in custody since.

1988 file photo/The Associated Press

Additional Photos Below

COMING NEXT WEEK: In Dennis Dechaine’s latest bid for a new trial, the key piece of evidence is a fragment of unidentified male DNA, extracted by scientists in 1994 from a thumbnail clipping of 12-year-old murder victim Sarah Cherry. Serving a life sentence for the crime, the prisoner hopes this trace of genetic material can alter his fate.

The stakes are high. An advocacy group called Trial and Error, composed largely of Dechaine's family and friends, have raised and spent more than $200,000 on lobbying to change the state law regarding DNA appeals, DNA testing, private investigators, a website and the production and distribution of DVDs about the case.

The state, meanwhile, has spent thousands of dollars on Dechaine's court-appointed lawyers, court time and the prosecutors who have contested Dechaine's appeals. At least $10,000, including for the estimated cost of more than 200 hours of staff time, also has been spent by the state crime lab for DNA testing.

"We do not keep a running tab on any case, but this case has consumed literally thousands of hours of attorney time and law enforcement time as well as the lab and the court. So it's a lot of money, certainly tens of thousands," Stokes said.

The case has attracted the attention of some high-profile consultants.

The Innocence Project, a New York-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the exoneration of convicts through DNA testing, has been involved in the case since the early 1990s. One of the organization's staff lawers, Alba Morales, is helping Peterson. Lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, who created the Innocence Project in 1992, became famous for their work on the O.J. Simpson "dream team" that won an acquittal for the former football star in 1995.

Another member of the Simpson team, famed defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey, also has entered the Dechaine fray.

Bailey, who has business ties in Maine and is moving to Yarmouth this month, heard about the case from another attorney. Bailey met with Dechaine at the prison in April 2009. At Bailey's request, two nationally recognized forensic pathologists reviewed some of the evidence and gave their opinions that Dechaine could not have committed the crime.

"This was a strong circumstantial case put on by the state, but it is possible that someone could have set him up," Bailey said. "The inflammatory nature of the crime makes it rife for opportunity to go astray because the public wants someone to pay."

Dechaine said that the prosecution's desire to make an arrest and assure the public that the killer was behind bars denied him a full and fair investigation.

"I have forced it so far to the back of my mind that I don't like to think about it anymore," he said while sitting in one of the visitation rooms at the state prison in Warren. "I don't like to think about all of the events that led to my wrongful conviction ... It took a lot of, well, pounding square pegs into round holes to do what was done to me."


Lawyers on both sides will be watching Dechaine's health as the hearing date approaches, because of an incident that took place at the prison in early April.

On the morning of April 5, two weeks after he was interviewed for this story, Dechaine was found unconscious in his cell, with an extremely low pulse rate and blood pressure. He was taken by helicopter to a Portland hospital, where doctors inserted a tube to help him breathe. Dechaine was speaking and walking again within a few days. He was returned to the prison on April 21.

Don Dechaine, a brother who lives in Madawaska, said Dennis Dechaine apparently ingested an unknown medication that nearly killed him. The family does not know what the medication was, how it got into Dechaine's system or how it was administered.

"There are a lot of questions we don't have the answers to," Don Dechaine said. He said he spoke to his brother on the telephone last week, and he sounded good. Dennis does not appear to have any lasting problems, such as brain damage.

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Additional Photos

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Dennis Dechaine is seen at Maine State Prison in Thomaston in June 1992, about a month after filing a motion for a new trial. It was denied in July.

1992 file photo/The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram

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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.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


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