Tuesday, March 11, 2014
The prisoner says he is tired of telling the story.
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
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.
But there’s a court hearing on the horizon that could be his last chance at a new trial. There are some things that he wants the public to hear again.
So Dennis Dechaine answers the same questions the officers asked on that summer night in the woods of Bowdoin in 1988. Did you take the girl? Did you kill Sarah Cherry?
“I’m not the guy who did this,” Dechaine said during a March 22 interview at the Maine State Prison in Warren.
“Somebody, somewhere in their heart of hearts at the state level has to know this.
“It is a nightmare,” Dechaine said.
The Dechaine case occupies a unique position in Maine’s collective consciousness.
No other case has been litigated in Maine’s court system for so long – almost 22 years and counting.
Maine knows Dennis Dechaine, inmate No. 1725, as the farmer convicted for one of the most shocking crimes in state history – the kidnapping, torture and murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry. Most Mainers also know that Dechaine, now 52, has maintained his innocence, and a large group of backers has provided the emotional and financial support behind his quest for a new trial.
In four appeals, state and federal judges have upheld the conviction and life sentence.
But he will get at least one more shot.
Sometime this fall, a judge is expected to decide whether Dechaine should get a new trial based primarily on a microscopic fragment of unidentified male DNA extracted from Sarah Cherry’s clipped thumbnail.
His lawyers must convince Superior Court Justice Carl O. Bradford – who presided at the 1989 trial – that the jury likely would have acquitted Dechaine if they had known about the thumbnail evidence. The lawyers also will ask Bradford to consider two forensic reports suggesting Dechaine could not have committed the crime. The hearing is tentatively set for September.
“We only get one shot at getting this right,” said attorney Steve Peterson of Rockport, who has worked on the case since 2003 and has been Dechaine’s lead defense lawyer since the fall of 2007.
“It’s his last, best chance,” Peterson said.
William Stokes, head of the Criminal Division at the state’s Attorney General’s Office, will argue that Dechaine does not deserve a new trial. The only mystery, as far as Stokes is concerned, is why the case has not been closed for good.
“When you have been given so many opportunities to make your case, and you haven’t done it, there’s that point where the family of the victim should get some finality,” Stokes said.
AN INCOMPARABLE CASE
The coming court battle was made possible by a state law enacted in 2001, and revised in 2006 at the urging of Dechaine's supporters. The law allows prisoners to seek new trials based on DNA evidence.
Only a handful of prisoners have filed motions based on the law, and Dechaine's motion would be the first to go before a judge if the hearing takes place as scheduled.
"In terms of public interest, there have been no other cases that compare to the Dechaine case. Never. Not even close," said prominent Augusta defense lawyer Walt McKee, who is not involved.
"Everybody has got their own take on the case," McKee said. "The first school of thought is that he had a trial with excellent lawyers on each side, the jury ruled, and how long do we have to go through this. On the other hand, there's the thought that the jury didn't hear some information that we now have, so let's put it in front of a new jury and let them decide."
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."
HEALTH SCARE, CRIMINAL PROBE
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.
The Maine Department of Corrections investigated the circumstances surrounding the emergency, and passed on the results of their probe to Knox County District Attorney Geoff Rushlau.
Rushlau and Denise Lord, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, declined to comment on details of the investigation.
"The matter is being reviewed for possible criminal charges," Rushlau said last week.
Peterson, Dechaine's lawyer, said any criminal charge arising from the April 5 incident would be dealt with separately from the DNA appeal.
"It will not affect that hearing at all," Peterson said.
VICTIM'S FAMILY SEEKS CLOSURE
Sarah Cherry's family members hope Dechaine's motion for a new trial will be denied and they will be afforded the closure they have been seeking since Sarah was kidnapped while babysitting on July 6, 1988.
Searchers found her body in nearby woods two days later. Sarah had been bound, gagged and sexually assaulted with sticks. She had been stabbed about a dozen times, and was strangled to death with a scarf.
"It's not right that he should be allowed to go on with this forever, to keep coming back to the courts time and time again," said Peg Cherry, Sarah's maternal grandmother.
Peg and her husband, Bud Cherry, live in Lisbon Falls, a short drive from the small town of Bowdoin, where Sarah lived with her mother and stepfather, Debbie and Chris Crosman.
Peg Cherry displays elementary school photographs of Sarah on cabinets. From her tidy living room, the 77-year-old grandmother can see where Sarah and her cousins used to play games of soccer, softball or tag.
Sarah would have been 34 years old on May 5.
Chris and Debbie Crosman declined to comment for this story because they say they still have difficulty discussing it more than two decades after their daughter's murder.
Many family members, including Peg Cherry, attended the trial in March 1989 at Knox County Superior Court in Rockland. Cherry has been in regular contact with prosecutors before and since. And no matter what Dechaine or his supporters say, she is certain he committed the crime.
"The evidence is overwhelming. There is no other answer," she said.
"He thought he was going to hoodwink everybody. Here is this pretty boy, really clean-cut, and he wants you to believe there's no way he could do it.
"Well, looks can be deceiving."
THE STATE'S POSITION
"No question, this was a circumstantial case, but sometimes that can be even more powerful than direct evidence," said William Stokes, the state prosecutor who inherited the Dechaine case from his predecessors in 1995.
Stokes said the state had more evidence against Dechaine than it does in many murder cases:
• A notebook and receipt from Dechaine's truck were found in the driveway of the home where Sarah had been baby-sitting.
• Dechaine was seen walking out of the woods in the general area where Sarah's body was later found.
• His truck was found 450 feet from the site.
• The scarf used to strangle Sarah and the rope binding her wrists had come from Dechaine's truck.
• Two detectives and two corrections officers testified that Dechaine made incriminating statements on the day of his arrest, including, "It must be somebody else inside of me."
Dechaine's testimony at the trial also was a key piece of evidence, Stokes said.
Dechaine said he went into the woods on the afternoon of July 6 to inject drugs, and got lost at some point. In an interview with the state's chief psychologist after the arrest in 1988, Dechaine said his history of drug use began with marijuana around the age of 13, and he had occasionally used various drugs, including cocaine and amphetamines, since that time.
During cross-examination at his trial, Dechaine conceded that his memory of the afternoon of July 6 was not as sharp as it might have been if he had not been using the drugs. But he insisted that he was not in an altered state of consciousness, and that he never saw Sarah Cherry that day. Dechaine believes another man took the items from his truck and used them to frame him.
Stokes takes offense at the accusations made by some of Dechaine's supporters, who claim that he and others within the Attorney General's Office have worked to protect the police and to hide and distort evidence pointing away from Dechaine.
"They have their point of view," Stokes said. "They are entitled to their point of view. What I do have a problem with is the personal attacks."
Stokes, an Augusta city councilor who also has served on the school board, said people sometimes ask him whether Trial and Error, the advocacy group that backs Dechaine, might be right in proclaiming his innocence.
"They're not trying to offend me, but I look at them and say, 'Do you really think I would fight and use my skills in the courtroom to keep someone in prison who I believe to be innocent?' " Stokes said.
"Consider the accusations that have been made, that we are basically conspiring to conceal evidence to keep a man we know is innocent in prison," he said. "That is personally very offensive to me, and I'm sure it's offensive to everyone else who bears the brunt of it."
WAITING AND HOPING, ON BOTH SIDES
At the Maine State Prison, Dechaine awaits the upcoming hearing with "reserved hope." There are some questions about his case that Dechaine wants the public to consider.
He noted that police never found physical evidence, not a hair, fiber or drop of blood, connecting him and Sarah Cherry. Investigators never found the knife used to stab Sarah, or her missing panties.
When the police dog tracked from Dechaine's truck into the woods, the dog took investigators on a few indirect routes, but did not lead to Sarah's body. Also, the dog did not find a scent of Sarah in Dechaine's truck, and that information was not provided to his lawyers before the trial.
"Had I abducted Sarah Cherry while in a complete stupor, which is what would have been required here, evidence of her presence in my vehicle would have been undeniable," Dechaine said. "Had I abducted Sarah Cherry in a complete stupor and killed her in the way that she was killed, I would have been covered in blood."
Dechaine said he would not have pushed for DNA testing of all the evidence, ever since the beginning of the case, if he had anything to hide.
More than anything, though, Dechaine said his own personality demonstrates that he was not capable of committing the acts that were perpetrated on the 12-year-old victim.
"I dare anybody to find a single incidence of violence in my life -- ever," he said. "It's not in my being. It's not who I am."
Peg Cherry says that claim of innocence has a hollow ring, in light of all the evidence against Dechaine. It defies common sense, Cherry said, to believe that anyone other than Dechaine could have been the one who killed her granddaughter.
In Lisbon Falls, Peg and Bud Cherry go about their own routines, supported by their community. They try not to get worked up by the actions of Dechaine's supporters.
Occasionally the phone rings and it is Bill Stokes, keeping them posted on a process that Peg Cherry describes as tiring.
"With each of these appeals, we keep thinking that it's going to be the last one, and then it isn't," she said.
Whenever Dechaine's pending motion goes to court, Cherry intends to be there.
"They're not going to get rid of us," she said. "As long as I can physically get in there, I will -- to my dying breath. And she is worth it."
Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:
click image to enlarge
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