July 11, 2010

The Defense Expert: Intrigued by case, prominent lawyer uses resources to scrutinize evidence

By Trevor Maxwell tmaxwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

Famed defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey thinks the unidentified male DNA found on murder victim Sarah Cherry's thumbnail is intriguing, but it might not be enough to get a new trial for prisoner Dennis Dechaine.

F. Lee Bailey, Dennis Dechaine
click image to enlarge

Inmate Dennis Dechaine shakes hands with attorney F. Lee Bailey, right, after a meeting at the Maine State Prison in Warren on April 8, 2009. “All that I promised to do, and have done, is to use past friendships and associations to get Dennis what he couldn’t afford,” Bailey said. “I don’t wish to be an advocate for anybody.”

April 2009 file photo/The Associated Press

click image to enlarge

F. Lee Bailey

Jack Milton


• Dr. Cyril Wecht, based in Pittsburgh, has served as a medical-legal and forensic pathology consultant in civil and criminal cases since 1962. He is perhaps best known nationally for his criticism of the Warren Commission’s conclusions in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For more information, see www.cyrilwecht.com.

• Dr. Walter Hofman is coroner for Montgomery County, Pa., and practices pathology at Roxborough Memorial Hospital in Philadelphia. Hofman is a designated forensic pathologist for the State of New Jersey and is a consultant to the Department of Health for the State of Florida. For more information, see www.drhofmanfourn6path.com.

But Bailey does believe, based on two new expert opinions, that she was killed several hours after Dechaine was in custody, and that should tip the scales in favor of a new trial.

The reports were prepared in December, at Bailey's personal request, by Dr. Cyril Wecht and Dr. Walter Hofman.

Both forensic pathologists have performed more than 10,000 autopsies each, and have testified as consultants for prosecutors and defendants in civil and criminal cases nationwide.

"If the pathologists are right, he has to be innocent," Bailey said of Dechaine. Bailey said it is not possible, given the nature of Sarah Cherry's injuries, that the 12-year-old survived for several hours after the attack.

Dechaine is serving a life sentence for his conviction in 1989. His latest motion for a new trial is tentatively scheduled to be heard by a judge this fall.

State prosecutors say the new opinions are not credible, and have no place in the upcoming proceedings.

"These are doctors who were not there, who are reviewing only a few facts and pieces of evidence, coming up with an opinion more than 20 years later," said William Stokes, head of the criminal division at the state Attorney General's Office.

"Most forensic pathologists that I have dealt with, when you ask them about time of death, are understandably cautious," Stokes said. "I don't think any medical examiner can give you a precise time of death. Anyone who tells you that is not credible.

"Dr. Wecht and Dr. Hofman are fine, but they weren't there," Stokes said. "It's speculation."

Bailey, 77, became famous for his work on high-profile cases, including the trials of Dr. Sam Sheppard, Patty Hearst and O.J. Simpson. He has been a figure of controversy in recent years.

He was jailed briefly in 1996 for refusing to return millions of dollars in stocks formerly held by one of his clients. Bailey was later disbarred in Florida and Massachusetts for his conduct related to that case.

Bailey has business ties in Maine and he is moving to Yarmouth this month from Massachusetts. A longtime pilot, Bailey is a close friend and business partner with Jim Horowitz, the founder of Oxford Aviation.

Bailey heard about the Dechaine case a few years ago from Waterville lawyer Jon Nale. Bailey read a copy of "Human Sacrifice," the book about the case by James P. Moore, a Brunswick author and retired federal agent. Bailey was intrigued by Moore's contention that Sarah Cherry's time of death was much later than the theory put forward by state prosecutors.

Bailey met Dechaine and his attorney, Steve Peterson of Rockport, at the Maine State Prison in April 2009. He agreed to serve as an unpaid "ombudsman" in the case.

"All that I promised to do, and have done, is to use past friendships and associations to get Dennis what he couldn't afford," Bailey said. "I don't wish to be an advocate for anybody."

Bailey said he receives about a dozen requests each year from lawyers and prisoners asking him to review their cases but he rarely gets involved. Moore's book was the difference-maker that prompted him to take an active role in Dechaine's case.

Bailey sent a packet -- including Sarah Cherry's autopsy report, portions of the trial testimony, weather reports and other case data -- to Wecht, who is a longtime friend. Wecht agreed to provide an opinion for free. Bailey also sought a second opinion from Hofman, whose nominal fee of $1,000 was paid by Dechaine's advocacy group, Trial and Error.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)