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 1988. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

ROCKLAND — A fingernail clipping is a key piece of evidence in a man’s latest effort to get a new trial in a 36-year-old murder case.

Dennis Dechaine, now 66, is serving life in prison after a jury found him guilty in 1989 of murder, kidnapping and sexual assault.

Sarah Cherry, 12

He was convicted in the brutal killing of Sarah Cherry, a 12-year-old girl who was babysitting at a house in Bowdoin on July 6, 1988, when she was reported missing. Cherry’s body was found two days later in the woods nearby.

Dechaine has steadfastly maintained his innocence, even after police found his truck near the crime scene and two personal items – an auto repair receipt and a notebook – in the driveway of the home where Cherry was last seen. Dechaine has argued these items were planted while he was lost in the same woods after getting high.

He was back in Knox County Superior Court Thursday for the first part of a two-day hearing with Justice Bruce Mallonee, which featured tense exchanges between attorneys as they sparred over DNA evidence and whether it merits a new trial.

Dechaine was joined by more than a dozen supporters who filled several rows of the courtroom, including family and members of a group dedicated to his innocence called Trial and Error. They have fundraised thousands of dollars for DNA testing, analysis and some of the expert witnesses who are testifying at this week’s hearing.


Dechaine made almost the same request as he did 11 years ago, citing DNA testing results from a clipping of Cherry’s left thumbnail that showed an unknown male profile – and excluded Dechaine.

The state’s highest court rejected Dechaine’s request for a new trial in 2015 after prosecutors had argued there was no way of knowing whether it was another suspect’s DNA, or just contamination from someone who had been handling the clipping in a lab.

But now, almost a decade later, Dechaine’s lawyers say that same unknown man’s DNA profile also was detected on the scarf used to choke Cherry – a sign, they argued, that this was not contamination and it could belong to the real killer.

Dennis Dechaine’s defense attorney John Nale, left, objects to a statement by prosecuting attorney Don Macomber during the first day of a two-day hearing at Knox County Superior Court on Thursday to decide whether Dechaine should have a new trial. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Dechaine’s attorneys, John Nale and Stu Tisdale, spent Thursday arguing these results are credible, that they weren’t scientifically possible at the time of Dechaine’s 1989 trial and that they reasonably could result in a different verdict.


Thursday’s hearing grew heated at times. Nale and Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber frequently objected to how the other portrayed the thumbnail evidence.


Macomber suggested there’s still no way of knowing whether or not the DNA was there by contamination and said that none of the defense’s witnesses could rule that out.

Nale interrupted Macomber’s cross-examination several times, accusing the prosecutor of “minimizing” the DNA results.

“We’re talking about the samples that were taken from the blood underneath all 10 of the victim’s fingernails,” Nale argued. “We’re not talking about touch DNA that came on top of the finger or anywhere.”

Rod Englert, a crime scene reconstructionist, testified that he believed Cherry dug her nails into her attacker’s skin while trying to resist him, drawing blood.

Nale questioned Englert using a large poster board of Cherry’s body, often raising it above his head to show Englert, who appeared in court via Zoom.

Cherry’s relatives sat toward the back of the courtroom Thursday with a victim witness advocate while listening to Englert’s graphic testimony. At one point a couple of people left the courtroom as the testimony became intense.


Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese said Englert’s hypothesis doesn’t hold up if Cherry wasn’t conscious. The young girl, weighing at nearly 90 pounds, had been fatally stabbed in the neck at some point in the struggle.

Englert had also described Cherry as a “young adult.” The girl hadn’t reached the seventh grade.

Englert rejected Marchese’s suggestion that he was trying to make Cherry seem older, “a little more capable of fighting back.”

Justice Bruce Mallonee presides over a two-day hearing at Knox County Superior Court to decide whether Dennis Dechaine should have a new trial. Dechaine has been in prison since 1989 after he was found guilty of murder in the death of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Many of the state’s arguments were the same as those they voiced in other hearings – the DNA results were gleaned from old, low-level samples, taken from items collected years before Maine had DNA testing. They’ve been subject to a long chain of custody, with stops at several labs, where they’ve risked contamination and degradation.

“We think that the DNA evidence doesn’t amount to a hill of beans,” Macomber said.

Macomber also argued that the DNA arguments pale to other evidence prosecutors used against Dechaine in 1989. He cited statements Dechaine allegedly made to jail staff after he was arrested, during which he called himself a murderer and asked to be placed in isolation. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has discounted these admissions, saying they offered no real details of the crime.


Macomber also referenced a conversation between the attorney general’s office and Dechaine’s first attorney in 1988. Dechaine consulted his lawyer George Carlton the day before Cherry was found, after initial questioning from police. After that consultation, Carlton allegedly told prosecutors that Cherry was dead and that they were searching the right area for her body.

“The evidence shows that this man, sitting right here,” Macomber said as he pointed at Dechaine, who was sitting with defense his lawyers dressed in a light gray prison uniform, “brutally, sexually assaulted 12-year-old Sarah Cherry and murdered her on July 6, 1988.”


Dechaine’s attorneys said the thumbnail has always been a part of their client’s case.

Dennis Dechaine, who has always maintained his innocence, sits near attorney John Nale during the first day of a two-day hearing at Knox County Superior Court to decide if he should have a new trial. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A month before his trial, his lawyers at the time asked for permission to delay the case to they could send it to a DNA lab in California.

They knew the blood wasn’t Dechaine’s, because he was Type O and the blood found under Cherry’s nails was Type A. But after a judge denied the defense’s request for out-of-state testing and it was assumed at trial the blood was Cherry’s, who was Type A.


Cherry’s nail clippings were tested at the state crime lab in 2003 and then at other labs with better testing capabilities in 2012.

A man’s DNA was found on half of her left thumbnail. But in its 2015 ruling, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said that the analysts couldn’t say definitively whether the DNA actually came from the crime scene, or if it was from just one individual.

In July 2022, Mallonee ordered further DNA testing, and six crime scene items were sent to a private lab in California.

There were two major developments, Dechaine’s attorneys said: He was excluded from three items that the killer handled and the unknown male DNA under Cherry’s thumbnail was also on the scarf used to choke her.

Richard Staub, who oversaw the DNA testing lab that reviewed the crime scene items in 2012, testified 10 years ago that he couldn’t rule out contamination.

But on Thursday, seeing that same profile on the scarf convinced him otherwise, he said.

“It’s like solving a problem every time you do a different DNA case,” Staub said. “This case had been eating at me for 10 years, like, what the heck is going on here? Because there’s somebody sitting in prison, because it hasn’t been looked at carefully.”

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