A retired Superior Court judge denied convicted murderer Dennis Dechaine’s request for a new trial Thursday, ruling that the DNA evidence on which the request was based is insufficient to implicate an alternate suspect in the murder of a 12-year-old Bowdoin girl in 1988.
The 28-page ruling by retired Superior Court Justice Carl O. Bradford was made public Thursday, five months after a two-day hearing in Portland where Bradford listened to testimony from several DNA experts.
Dechaine and his attorney, Steven Peterson of Rockport, sought a new trial based on DNA evidence they contend suggests that someone else may have killed Sarah Cherry. Bradford presided over Dechaine’s original murder trial in 1989, when he sentenced the former Bowdoinham farmer to life in prison.
Dechaine was convicted of kidnapping Cherry, sexually assaulting her, stabbing and strangling her. Dechaine, 55, has served 25 years of a life sentence at the Maine State Prison.
Dechaine has maintained his innocence, and was supported by a group that calls itself Trial and Error, and by the Innocence Project, a national group that specializes in using DNA to exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates. Author James P. Moore wrote a book about the case called “Human Sacrifice.”
Dechaine’s bid for a new trial rested on whether DNA evidence obtained from one of the victim’s fingernails and additional DNA from her shirt, bra and scarf pointed to a different suspect.
Peterson said he presented DNA evidence from a coffee cup that had been obtained from a Florida man by a private investigator from Maine who was hired by Trial and Error. Peterson said the DNA on the mug did not match the DNA from Cherry’s fingernails. However, DNA from a scarf did not exclude the Florida man, who is named in Bradford’s order as Douglas Senecal.
The new DNA analysis doesn’t rule out Dechaine but concludes only that DNA from more than one person was on the girl’s shirt and scarf, Peterson said.
But in his ruling, Bradford said that none of the DNA evidence that attempts to link Senecal to the murder is sufficient to implicate him.
“Nobody can corroborate Dechaine’s alibi that he was using drugs and walking around the woods during the time the murder likely occurred,” Bradford wrote in his decision. “Lastly, multiple individuals testified that Dechaine confessed to the murder. After considering all of the evidence in this case, old and new, the court cannot conclude that Dechaine would receive a different verdict in a new trial.”
Peterson said he plans to appeal Bradford’s ruling to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Peterson said Bradford “gave a lot of weight” to the prosecution’s argument that the conditions in the morgue where Cherry’s autopsy was performed were not ideal for protecting DNA samples from contamination, in particular Cherry’s fingernail samples.
Peterson also criticized the state for what he characterized as “the destruction” of physical evidence gathered at the crime scene. If that evidence had been preserved, it could have been tested.
Introduction of DNA evidence was just beginning to be used in courtrooms around the time that Dechaine’s case went to trial. One of the first uses of DNA evidence in a criminal case in the United States took place in November 1987.
The state has maintained that Dechaine alone is responsible for Cherry’s death.
On July 6, 1988, Cherry was kidnapped from a home where she was babysitting. Her body was found two days later in woods in Bowdoin. She had been sexually assaulted with sticks, stabbed several times and strangled with a scarf.
Dechaine, who at the time was a 30-year-old farmer from Bowdoinham, became the sole suspect after significant circumstantial evidence pointed to him.
Dechaine stumbled out of the woods where the body was found with his truck parked nearby. Rope from his truck had been used to bind Cherry’s hands. Dechaine told police he spent the day doing drugs and wandering in the woods.
Cherry’s family has followed the proceedings, which represent the longest criminal case in state history.
Bob Dorr, a pastor and close friend of the Cherry family, said he spoke Thursday night with Sarah’s grandparents. Peg and Bud Cherry of Lisbon told him they are relieved that Bradford ruled against a new trial.
Dorr, who lives in Waldoboro, has attended every legal proceeding over the past 25 years involving Dechaine.
“You have to wonder how something like this can happen,” Dorr said. “It really sentences the family of a murder victim to years and years of not being able to put it to rest, to get some peace.”
Deputy Attorney General William Stokes described Bradford’s ruling as “very well reasoned and thorough.”
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: