Ever since I moved to Maine more than 10 years ago, I have been perplexed by the attention that has been given to Dennis Dechaine, and frustrated not to have a fuller picture of the story. With the attention paid to Dechaine lately by Portland’s daily newspaper, I decided to go back and read the case records. Here’s what I found:
On July 6, 1988, a 12-year-old girl named Sarah Cherry was kidnapped from the home in Bowdoin where she was babysitting. She was tortured and killed. On March 18, 1989, a jury convicted Dennis Dechaine for Cherry’s murder, rape and gross sexual assault.
According to the reported decisions, the evidence at trial included that the Henkel family hired Cherry to care for their 10-month-old infant on July 6. As parting advice, Cherry’s mother admonished her not to let anyone in the house while she was babysitting.
Ms. Henkel spoke to Cherry around noon as Cherry was feeding the baby. Around 1 p.m., a neighbor heard a vehicle and dogs barking, and 15 minutes later saw a red Toyota pickup truck.
Ms. Henkel arrived home around 3:20 pm. She found some papers, a notebook, and a repair bill belonging to Dechaine in her driveway. The doors to the house were slightly ajar, but the house was otherwise undisturbed. The baby was asleep and Cherry was missing.
Henkel searched for Cherry without success and called the police. Mr. Henkel arrived home and noticed an unusual tire track in the driveway that was consistent, it was later determined, with the tires on Dechaine’s truck.
Around 8:45 pm, Dechaine walked out of the woods about two miles away and told a homeowner that he lived in Yarmouth, was visiting Bowdoinham, had been fishing and could not find his truck. Sheriff’s deputies transported Dechaine to a command post that had been set up to handle the investigation. Dechaine hid the keys to his truck under the seat of the police cruiser.
At the command post, a detective and a deputy informed Dechaine that they were investigating the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl. They noticed what appeared to them to be fresh scratches and bruises on Dechaine. Dechaine told them he had been fishing and had lost track of his truck. He initially denied ownership of the materials found in the Henkels’ driveway, but then acknowledged that they were his and claimed that he had been set up.
The police searched for and found Dechaine’s locked, red Toyota pickup truck. He gave them permission to search it.
On July 8, 1988, a search team found Cherry’s body approximately 400 feet from where Dechaine’s truck had been found. She had been bound, gagged, grazed, stabbed, strangled and sexually assaulted. Rope used to bind her wrists had the same characteristics as rope found in Dechaine’s truck. A piece of rope found in the woods exactly matched rope in Dechaine’s truck.
Dechaine was arrested. An arresting officer testified that Dechaine said it “must have been someone else inside me.” The booking officer testified that during processing, Dechaine said “Oh my God, it should never have happened. Why did I do this? I didn’t think it happened until I saw her face on the news. Then it all came back to me. I remembered it. Why did I kill her? What punishment could they ever give me that would equal what I have done?”
Two corrections officers testified that Dechaine told them that they needed to know that he was the one who murdered that girl and they might want to put him in isolation.
Dechaine testified. He denied abducting, restraining or killing Cherry. He denied confessing. He claimed that he had been injecting drugs. Wandered into the woods. Injected more drugs. Got lost. Found his way out around dusk. Lied to the homeowner for fear the homeowner would notice that he was under the influence of drugs. Immediately acknowledged that the papers found in the driveway were his. Hid his keys after realizing that he had mistakenly told the police that he had left them in his truck. Conceded that there were periods of time when his memory was not as sharp as it could have been.
The defense presented character evidence that Dechaine had a reputation for peacefulness and non-violence. The court refused to allow Dechaine to present information in support of an alternative-perpetrator theory because it was too speculative.
Dechaine appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed his conviction, observing that his alternative-perpetrator theory was unsubstantiated and speculative. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Dechaine moved for a new trial on the grounds of newly discovered evidence supporting his alternative-perpetrator theory. The court held a three-day hearing and denied the request on the grounds that the newly discovered evidence that an alternative perpetrator had a motive and the opportunity to commit the crime was too speculative and not substantiated enough to warrant a new trial.
Meanwhile, Dechaine’s counsel retrieved from the court what remained of Cherry’s fingernail clippings and sent them to a lab in Boston for analysis. The lab reported finding DNA from two or more donors, but not Dechaine.
Dechaine petitioned for post-conviction review on the grounds of ineffectiveness of counsel. The state moved to depose his co-counsel on the basis that co-counsel had evidence of Dechaine’s actual guilt (had told prosecutors that Cherry was not alive and that they were searching in the right area before Cherry’s body was found). The court denied Dechaine’s petition on the grounds that he had delayed his petition until after the co-counsel had suffered a stroke, which prejudiced the state’s case.
Dechaine collaterally attacked his conviction in federal court. The court denied the claim on the grounds that it lacked the power to order an alternative suspect to provide a saliva sample, and that Dechaine failed to show the fundamental miscarriage of justice required to escape his procedural default. It observed that the evidence of his guilt was substantial and the evidence of the alternative perpetrator was inadequate. In particular, the court observed that the nail clippings had been handled in a manner that raised concern about contamination, and there was no evidence that the mystery DNA was transferred to the fingernails during commission of the crime.
In 2006, a three-person panel appointed by the attorney general investigated five allegations of impropriety made against the prosecution team and found them all unsubstantiated. The Legislature passed a law allowing new trial motions based on DNA analysis. Dechaine filed such a motion in 2008. It is awaiting a hearing.
My analysis: Dechaine has had a lot of process and his defense theory doesn’t hold up in court.