Dennis Dechaine, who has always maintained his innocence, sits near his attorney John Nale on Thursday 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

ROCKLAND — State prosecutors say there’s no way of knowing whether new DNA evidence in a three-decade-old murder was actually from the crime scene or the result of contamination afterward. They also questioned why, if the defense says the evidence is so conclusive, another suspect hasn’t been identified.

Even after many court appearances and several rounds of DNA testing, Dennis Dechaine’s attorneys and state prosecutors still have no idea who else could have killed 12-year-old Sarah Cherry.

Sarah Cherry, 12

Dechaine, 66, is serving life in prison for the killing and kidnapping of Sarah Cherry, a 12-year-old girl who was found dead in the woods in Bowdoin in July 1988. He has maintained his innocence the entire time.

Cherry’s family members, meanwhile, said Friday that they are still confident in his conviction even after sitting through his many hearings regarding new DNA evidence. Dechaine was in Knox County Superior Court this week for a two-day hearing on his request for a new trial based on DNA testing done in 2022.

“I want my family to be remembered,” said Hilary Hall, Sarah Cherry’s sister. She was 8 years old when Cherry was killed. “I want her to be remembered. I hope this is the end, I really do, because we don’t want to keep doing this.”

Dechaine made a similar request for a new trial years ago, but was denied in 2015 by Maine’s highest court, which ruled that Dechaine had failed to prove DNA results from 2003 and 2012 were the result of anything other than contamination.


Dechaine’s attorneys say more recent testing revealed the same male DNA, which isn’t Dechaine’s, on both the scarf used to choke Cherry and one of her fingernails, which had blood under them when she was found.

Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber said there is no way of knowing whether that DNA came from Cherry’s killer or one of the many people who handled the evidence.

“Is it possible to say, just from the DNA evidence in this case, that the DNA was left at the time by the perpetrator?” Macomber asked Meghan Clement, their forensic DNA expert.

“There’s no way to know when that DNA got there,” she said.

The state also doubted whether Dechaine’s attorneys can definitively say the same male was detected on both items – the results that came back were weak and partial. There’s no way of matching them to any one person using current technology, and there’s no way of telling whether they were deposited at the time Cherry was murdered or afterward.



Dechaine’s many supporters, dozens of whom filled half of the courtroom Friday, believe it was one of numerous known killers and sex offenders who were in the Bowdoin area in 1988. Many of Dechaine’s supporters belong to Trial and Error, a group dedicated to proving his innocence. The group’s president, Carol Waltman, declined to speak about the case Friday.

Superior Court Justice Bruce Mallonee asked Dechaine’s attorney John Nale what it means that despite all of the DNA testing, another suspect still hasn’t been identified.

In order to give Dechaine a new trial, Mallonee has to find that there’s enough new DNA evidence to believe a jury could reach a different verdict than the one from Dechaine’s trial in 1989.

“The parties have not called to my attention any plausible identification of another person who might have done this,” Mallonee said.

Dechaine’s last attorneys tried comparing the crime scene items to DNA samples from one man, Douglas Senecal, but failed to find any links.

Nale declined to elaborate on the defense’s efforts regarding other suspects after court, including notorious serial killer Richard Evonitz, saying it’s “not our job.”


“My job was that he didn’t do it, Mr. Dechaine didn’t do it,” Nale said. “My job was not to find who did do it.”

Nale has previously said the state has the same DNA evidence as the defense.

Even if the 2022 results don’t yield another suspect for Dechaine’s case, he said they still offer the state “leads” for the real killer.

Nale has questioned why the state hasn’t used those results to identify other potential suspects, given his client’s persistent claims of innocence.

Cathy Macmillan, a former DNA analyst for the Maine State Police crime lab, testified Friday that this is harder than Nale makes it out to be.

The 2022 testing results, which show some male DNA on Cherry’s fingernail that appears similar to male DNA found on the scarf, underwent Y-STR testing, which focuses exclusively on males, who leave behind Y-chromosomes. The results don’t identify an individual, and MacMillan said it’s illegal in Maine to compare Y-STR findings to a statewide database of convicted people for potential links.


A judge ordered MacMillan to compare previous DNA findings from Cherry’s killing to a national database of convicted people called “CODIS.”

During one search in 2005, she said she got back eight candidates. In 2011, she found 29 candidates.

None of these was a match, MacMillan said. She couldn’t recall Friday what investigation, if any, was done afterward.

MacMillan also stood by testimony she shared in 2012 and 2013 during Dechaine’s last motion for a new trial. She said it was likely that new profiles detected on the crime scene evidence were the result of contamination. She was not swayed by the new results, unlike one of the defense’s experts who said Thursday that the new testing results forced him to reconsider his original findings.


Neither was Cherry’s family swayed.


“It’s doesn’t matter how new the testing is,” Hall said. “The evidence is still old.”

The thing that was different this time, she said, was that the testimony was even harder to endure.

Nale often questioned witnesses using large poster boards of Cherry’s body from the crime scene.

A crime scene reconstructionist for the defense testified for hours Thursday and Friday about how he believes Cherry was attacked, in an effort to explain how blood ended up under Cherry’s nails.

His explanation was blunt and often gruesome. At one point Thursday afternoon, Cherry’s mother had to step out of the courtroom. They actually encouraged other family members not to come to court, Hall said, because it gets harder with each hearing.

“We lose a little bit more of hope, I would say, the more we do this. But then at the same time, we are stronger as a family because we know the truth. We’re sticking with the truth.”


At home, Hall says she keeps her sister’s memory alive with photo albums that her children look through often.

Hall will tell them about the older sister who loved sports, and often got her into sports.

“I can tell wonderful stories about us hanging out together, sharing a room together, fighting a little bit as siblings do,” said Hall, chuckling before her voice started to break.

“I wish I still had her.”

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