Dennis Dechaine is led into a Rockland courtroom on Thursday at the start of a two-day hearing to request a new trial in the killing of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry in the late ’80s. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A month before Dennis Dechaine was found guilty in 1989 of murdering and kidnapping 12-year-old Sarah Cherry, his defense attorneys pleaded with the court to test the blood found under Cherry’s fingernails for DNA.

Sarah Cherry, 12

That request was denied. According to news reports at the time, the state would have had to get help from a lab in California and the judge thought that would take too much time.

More than 35 years later, Dechaine, now 66, is again hoping that DNA testing will lead to his release from his life sentence.

He and his lawyer John Nale will be in court for a two-day hearing that begins Thursday in Knox County Superior Court to decide whether the DNA testing results, which were released in November 2022, merit a new trial.

Cherry was babysitting at a house in Bowdoin when she disappeared. Her body was found two days later in the woods 3 miles away, close to where Dechaine’s truck had been parked. She clearly had been kidnapped and sexually violated, police said.

At Dechaine’s trial, prosecutors from the Office of the Maine Attorney General showed the jury items that were found outside the house where Cherry had been babysitting. They belonged to Dechaine, including a receipt for auto repair work and Dechaine’s notebook.


Dechaine’s alibi was questionable – police found him while they were still searching for Cherry. He denied having any role and told them he had been in the woods by himself, doing drugs. Prosecutors also say Dechaine confessed in interviews with police after his arrest. But the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has discounted this, saying they were “purported confessions that contained no details of the crime.”

But the state’s case had holes, too.

Forensic science conclusively indicates Cherry was alive at least six hours after Dechaine was picked up by police.

Advocates for Dechaine’s innocence have pointed to several other potential suspects whom police didn’t examine, including known serial killers and sex offenders who were in the same area that summer. Dechaine’s lawyers argued in 1989 that their client, a 30-year-old farmer who couldn’t butcher his own chickens, had been framed by someone who took items from his truck and planted them at the scene.

Many of these issues have been explored in appeals to Maine’s highest court, but all have been shot down. Maine law makes it difficult for defendants to be granted new trials because of strict deadlines for introducing new evidence. In most cases, such evidence has to be introduced within a year of when it reasonably could have been discovered.

Superior Justice Bruce Mallonee has ordered Dechaine’s lawyer to focus only on the new DNA testing at this week’s hearing, and only on results that could have come up after Dechaine’s 1989 trial.


According to court records, Nale is also allowed to call on a DNA expert who can contextualize the results and the expert from the lab that conducted the 2022 analysis.

Partial male DNA profiles were found on at least four of the six crime scene objects that were tested, according to the forensic results. Dechaine was excluded from DNA found on three items: a bra worn by Cherry, one of the sticks used to assault her and the bandana used to gag her.

But there wasn’t enough data to either include or exclude Dechaine as the source of DNA on the remaining three items – the scarf used to strangle her, her blood-stained T-shirt and a second stick used in the sexual assault.

Prosecutors said Dechaine was still a potential match on two items, but Nale said Dechaine would be one of thousands of potential sources.

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