July 11, 2010

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

By Trevor Maxwell tmaxwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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.

Both Wecht and Hofman disagreed with the findings of Ronald Roy, the deputy state medical examiner who conducted Sarah Cherry's autopsy after her body was found by a search team around noon on July 8, 1988.

At Dechaine's trial, Roy testified that when he examined Sarah's body that afternoon, rigor mortis -- the temporary stiffening of a corpse's joints and muscles -- was still present but was passing off. The body had been found in the woods in Bowdoin, covered by five to six inches of leaves, sticks and other forest debris.

In the estimate he provided for the jury, Roy said Sarah died a minimum of 30 hours before he examined her, or sometime before 8 a.m. July 7. But Roy said Sarah probably died much earlier than that, most likely sometime on the afternoon of July 6.

Dechaine walked out of the woods in Bowdoin around 8:45 p.m. on July 6, and his whereabouts after that time are accounted for.

According to the opinions written by Wecht and Hofman, if Sarah had died anytime on July 6, there is no way that rigor mortis still should have been present when Roy examined the body. There also should have been much more insect activity on Sarah's body, given the daytime temperatures of close to 90 degrees, the pathologists contend.

In Wecht's opinion, the earliest possible time of Sarah Cherry's death would have been 3 a.m. on July 7, six hours after Dechaine was picked up by police. Hofman's report said the earliest time of death would have been around noon on July 7.

Roy is retired and living in British Columbia, Canada. He did not respond to phone messages seeking comment for this story.

Peterson, Dechaine's attorney, continues to prepare arguments in hopes of convincing a judge to grant Dechaine a new trial. At that upcoming hearing, Peterson intends to introduce the DNA evidence found on Sarah Cherry's thumbnail; the time of death opinions written by Wecht and Hofman; and witness testimony supporting the defense's theory of an alternate suspect.

But it is unclear whether Justice Carl O. Bradford will consider the Wecht and Hofman reports at the hearing. Dechaine is the first prisoner to test the state law allowing this type of appeal. The law was passed in 2001 and revised in 2006.

"The scope (of the law) includes bringing in old and new evidence in any area that had been involved in earlier proceedings," Peterson said.

Stokes disagrees with Peterson's reading of the law. He said the defense is limited to the DNA evidence, and the law does not open the door to other evidence. Disagreements over time of death and the possibility of alternate suspects have already been heard in several previous appeals lodged by Dechaine, all of which have been rejected by the courts.

"This is a hearing on DNA evidence," Stokes said. "It is not an opportunity to retry the case."

Bradford will likely have to make a ruling before the hearing on what pieces of evidence he will consider.


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