In a major blow to Dennis Dechaine’s bid for a new trial, the judge in the case will not consider new forensic opinions offered by the defense that suggest Dechaine could not have murdered 12-year-old Sarah Cherry in July 1988.

Dechaine’s lawyer, Steve Peterson, obtained the opinions earlier this year from two forensic pathologists, Cyril Wecht and Walter Hofman, regarding Cherry’s time of death. Peterson hoped to persuade Justice Carl O. Bradford to consider those reports, along with DNA evidence, at an upcoming hearing to determine whether Dechaine will get a new trial.

In an order filed last week in Knox County Superior Court, Bradford said state law strictly limits the hearing to DNA evidence and other evidence directly related to DNA. The opinions from Wecht and Hofman do not fall into that category, the judge ruled.

“New evidence that is exculpatory but not directly relevant to the interpretation of the DNA evidence will not be admitted,” Bradford wrote. “To do otherwise would allow the defendant to relitigate issues that were or could have been argued in earlier proceedings.”

Dechaine, 52, is serving a life sentence in state prison for the kidnapping and murder of Sarah Cherry in the Sagadahoc County town of Bowdoin. Through four unsuccessful appeals at the state and federal levels, Dechaine has maintained that he is innocent. A large group of vocal supporters continues to lobby state officials and legislators on his behalf.

Bradford’s ruling leaves Peterson with only one key piece of evidence to present at the hearing for a new trial.

That evidence is a fragment of unidentified male DNA, extracted by scientists from a thumbnail that was clipped from the girl during her autopsy. The partial DNA profile was not a match for Dechaine, law enforcement officers who handled the body, or the girl’s family members. Peterson says the thumbnail DNA holds the key to finding the killer.

Prosecutors say the right man is behind bars, and the DNA could have come from any incidental contact the girl had leading up to her death or from contaminated clippers used in her autopsy.

Prosecutors also note that the thumbnail clippings were kept for more than a year by Dechaine’s trial lawyer, Tom Connolly, at his office in Portland.

To get a new trial, Peterson must convince Bradford that the thumbnail DNA evidence is reliable, and that jurors probably would find Dechaine not guilty of murder if they knew about it.

Peterson said the order denying admission of the Wecht and Hofman reports “seriously hamstrings us.”

“I can’t say that it was unexpected, the way this case has gone. The court adopted a very narrow construction of the statute,” Peterson said. “We’re going to forge ahead in whatever circumstances we’re in, and try to get him a new trial.”

William Stokes, head of the criminal division of the state Attorney General’s Office, said he was pleased with the decision.

“It is the position we have taken all along,” Stokes said. “The judge has made it clear that those opinions are not going to be heard at any DNA hearing in this case.”

The opinions by Wecht and Hofman were provided at the request of the renowned defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey, who has longstanding business ties in Maine and recently moved to Yarmouth.

Bailey heard about Dechaine’s case a few years ago. He met with Dechaine at the Maine State Prison in April 2009 and agreed to serve as an unpaid “ombudsman” in the case.

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

Both forensic pathologists gave opinions that the earliest possible time of Cherry’s death was sometime on July 7, 1988. Dechaine was detained by police on the evening of July 6.

Ronald Roy, the deputy state medical examiner who did the autopsy, testified at Dechaine’s trial that he could not pinpoint a time of death, and that the girl probably was killed in the afternoon or evening on July 6, 1988.

On Wednesday, Bailey expressed frustration at Bradford’s order. He said the opinions should be admitted at Dechaine’s hearing for a new trial because they dovetail with the thumbnail DNA.

“The tragedy is, in my view, that there is a good chance that the state of Maine is going to ignore some powerful evidence that is totally exculpatory, without putting on paper the sworn testimony of these eminent forensic pathologists, two of the best alive, who arrived at their conclusions without discussing the matter with one another,” Bailey said.

Cherry, a student at Bowdoin Central School, was kidnapped while baby-sitting on July 6, 1988. The mother who had hired her came home about 3:20 p.m. and found a notebook and a receipt bearing the name Dennis Dechaine in her driveway.

Police began a search for the missing girl and Dechaine. About five hours later, he was seen walking out of the woods about three miles north of the home.

He told police that he had been fishing and he couldn’t find his truck. He denied having anything to do with the girl’s disappearance. Later that night, police found his pickup truck on a discontinued logging road nearby.

A search team found the girl’s body about noon on July 8 near where the truck was found. She had been stabbed about a dozen times and strangled with a scarf. The scarf and the rope binding her wrists had come from Dechaine’s truck.

Dechaine testified at his trial that he went into the woods on July 6 to inject speed and wander around. He said someone must have framed him by grabbing his papers, the rope and the scarf from his truck.

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

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