Dennis Dechaine, shown in court in 2013, was convicted of murdering Sarah Cherry in 1988. Press Herald staff photo

Just weeks before a hearing on whether new DNA evidence is enough to grant Dennis Dechaine a new trial, his defense attorneys are preparing a backup plan.

In a petition filed in Knox County Superior Court, the defense attorneys argue that Dechaine, who is serving a life sentence for the 1988 murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry, was stripped of his constitutional right to a fair trial.

Sarah Cherry

Dechaine already has a hearing next month to argue that new DNA testing results from November 2022 should merit a new trial.

But the latest petition, filed March 1, is asking the court to also consider granting Dechaine a new trial on the basis of “blatant prosecutorial misconduct.”

Dechaine was found guilty of knowing or intentional murder in 1989 and sentenced to life in prison. 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 when he was picked up by police the night of the abduction.

Dechaine has always maintained his innocence, so when new DNA testing excluded him from three of the six crime scene objects, he argued he is entitled to a new trial under Maine law. A hearing to discuss the DNA evidence is scheduled for April 18-19.


But even if he’s unsuccessful, his attorneys say he may still have another shot at a new trial.

The defense’s argument rests on one snippet from one sentence in the prosecutor’s closing arguments in the 1989 trial.

The prosecutor acknowledged there were unanswered questions in the state’s case and implored the jury to decide the case on “what the evidence is and what the evidence is not.” He admitted that there were gaps in the evidence – Dechaine’s fingerprints were not found at the Henkel residence, where Cherry had been babysitting, and her fingerprints were not found on Dechaine’s truck.

But then God came into the equation.

“The point as we tried to make to you with regard to this kind of evidence, whether it be fingerprints or fibers or hairs or what have you, sometimes you have it or sometimes you don’t,” the prosecutor said, according to the defense’s filing. “I can give you no better answer than to say, that’s the way God made it.”

John Nale, Dechaine’s attorney, said in a phone interview Wednesday that the invocation of God should have drawn an objection and corrective instruction from the court, but it went unnoticed – for more than 30 years.


The second the prosecutor “brought God into the courtroom,” his client was deprived of his right to a fair trial, Nale said.

“ ‘That’s the way God made it’ gutted reasonable doubt. ‘That’s the way God made it’ obliterated the wall between Church and State,” the defense wrote in the petition. “ ‘That’s the way God made it’ relieved the jurors of their duty to deliberate conscientiously over the absence of evidence alluded to by the prosecutor. The dearth was God’s will and therefore not to be questioned.”

Nale said faith has no role in rational inquiry.

“You can’t send the jury into the jury room thinking that ‘Hey, if God made it that way, then the guy must have done it,’ ” he said.

There’s no way to know whether the jury was swayed by the mention of God, but Nale said it doesn’t matter; the rules jurisprudence were broken.

Nale said the judge could order a new trial based on the DNA issue, the claim of misconduct or both.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Maine Attorney General did not respond to a message Wednesday asking about the defense’s allegations.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.