Trial and Error

The Outcry for Justice in the Dennis Dechaine Case

Dennis's Timeline

October 29, 1957
Dennis John Dechaine is born.

1966
His mother, Julia, died when Dennis was 9 years old.

1971
His father Donald (Donat in French), died when Dennis was 14 years old.

May 5, 1976
Sarah Cherry is born to Debra Cherry and Gilbert Austin.

June, 1976
Dennis graduates from Madawaska High School with 158 classmates and goes to work in Brunswick at George Christopher’s sheep farm.

December, 1979
Dennis graduates from Vermont Technical College near the top of his class after majoring in agricultural business management.

January, 1980
Dennis moved to Washington State and later enrolls in Western Washington Univ. that fall

Fall, 1981
In sophomore year, he meets his future wife, Nancy Emmons, and studies languages with a major in French.

June, 1983
Nancy and Dennis graduate from Western Washington University.

Sept, 1983
Nancy and Dennis are married in Colorado Springs, Colorado where her parents live, and move back to Maine.

1984-1987
Dennis and Nancy live and work on George Christopher’s farm until buying a farm of their own.

Fall, 1986
Dennis selected for Rotary International fellowship, and travels to India.

1987
Dennis is elected as one of three members of Farmers Home Administration Committee for Sagadahoc and Lincoln Counties.

July 1-5, 1988
Nancy and Dennis to Madawaska for Dechaine family reunion, July 4 celebration and vacation of swimming and canoeing.  Return home on the 5th.

July 6, 1988
9:10 a.m. Sarah Cherry begins first babysitting job.

12 noon. Mother of baby calls home and Sarah and baby are fine.

Between noon and 3:20 p.m. Sarah Cherry is abducted.

3:20 p.m. Baby’s mother returns home to find baby safe, but Sarah Cherry is missing. The two documents found in the driveway with Dennis Dechaine’s name on them lead police to begin searching for him, as well as for Sarah Cherry.

8:30 p.m. Dennis Dechaine is seen coming out of the woods as he is lost and looking for his truck, and at 8:45 is picked up by neighbors, the Buttricks, who try to help him find his truck.

9:20 p.m. A police car meets up with the Buttricks and Dennis Dechaine transfers into the police car thinking that the police can help him find his truck. Immediately, he is questioned by police about the missing Sarah Cherry and remains in back seat of a police car for 8 hours. He is returned home at 4 a.m. on July 7 and kept under police surveillance thereafter until his arrest on Friday, the 8th.

July 7, 1988
2  a.m. – 8 a.m. Sarah Cherry is killed during this period, according to the State Medical Examiner at subsequent trial. He says that, based upon the degree of rigor mortis, she died between 30 and 36 hours prior to her body being examined on Friday (below). The period 30-36 hours prior to the 2 p.m. Friday exam would make the time of death between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. Thursday morning. Thus, by the state’s own witness’ testimony, Sarah Cherry likely died 5 1/2 hours AFTER Dennis Dechaine emerged from the woods after which his presence is entirely accounted for by witnesses.

July 8, 1988
12:20 p.m. Sarah Cherry’s body found.

2:00 p.m.  Dr. Roy, medical examiner, examines Sarah Cherry’s body at site found.

Dennis Dechaine is arrested and jailed.

Jan. 26, 1989
Motion for testing of DNA is denied at a hearing several days later, even though Dennis Dechaine offers to pay for the testing. This denial of DNA testing contrasts with the fact that, a week after Sarah Cherry was killed, Maine’s crime lab submitted evidence from an earlier, unrelated crime to a New York lab for DNA testing.

March 6, 1989
Trial begins in Rockland, Maine, with Dennis Dechaine represented by Tom Connolly and George Carlton. The testimony by Dr. Roy omits any statement of the time of death; he simply states that it occurred 30-36 hours prior to his initial examination of Sarah Cherry’s body.

March 18, 1989
Dennis Dechaine receives two life sentences, later reduced to one. In Maine, a life sentence means imprisonment until dead.

Oct. 16, 1989
Defense attorney Tom Connolly files appeal of conviction.

March 15, 1990
Maine Supreme Judicial Court denies appeal. 

May 4, 1990
Appeal of sentence denied by Maine Supreme Court.

May 5, 1992
Bag of defense exhibits, including thumbnail clippings, are given to Tom Connolly by Superior Court Clerk. Connolly files Motion for New Trial.

June 18, 1992
On prosecutors’ orders and without notice to the defense, all evidence the State did not use at trial (including Sarah’s untested bloody fingernails, vaginal swabs and hairs found on Sarah’s body which were neither hers nor Dechaine’s) are incinerated.

June, 1992
Trial and Error gives a presentation at the Unitarian Church in Brunswick stating that Dechaine is innocent. Retired ATF agent Jim Moore begins an investigation he hopes will convince the Trial & Error people that authorities did their job and Dechaine is guilty. Instead, the evidence he finds proves Dechaine innocent. After more investigation and several unsuccessful lawsuits aimed at having the State disclose additional evidence, Moore writes the first edition of Human Sacrifice, which is published in 2002.

June 18, 1992
Rape kit and other biological evidence incinerated per order of the Attorney General.

July 2, 1992
Hearing begins before Judge Bradford on a Motion for a Retrial based on new evidence.

July 31, 1992
Motion for a Retrial was denied by Judge Carl Bradford. 

November, 1992
Mark Westrum elected Sheriff, Sagadahoc County

February 14, 1993
Carol Waltman contacts the Innocence Project about testing for DNA underneath the thumbnails of Sarah Cherry.

June 10, 1993
Thumbnail clippings are sent to CBR lab for DNA testing.

August 26, 1993
Maine’s Supreme Court affirms the denial of the bid for a new trial.  

August, 1993
CBR Lab determines that there are two “donors” of DNA in the mixture of blood.underneath a thumbnail of Sarah Cherry. Dr. Bing notes “layered blood.” For later determinations, see “May 24, 1994” below.

December 13, 1993
Maine Attorney General files motion seeking return of exhibits, including blood/skin samples, mistakenly given to Tom Connolly, and which he had tested for DNA.

December 20, 1993
Superior Court orders Tom Connolly to return the thumbnail clippings.

April 22, 1994
Dennis Dechaine’s blood sample is forwarded to CBR lab for comparison with unidentified DNA found underneath Sarah Cherry’s thumbnail.

May 4, 1994
Dennis Dechaine is informed that his DNA was not on the thumbnail clippings.

May 24, 1994
CBR Laboratories in Boston completes testing of DNA and finds “two or more donors” in one sample, with one being the victim and the second being a person other than Dennis Dechaine.

July 8, 1994
Maine’s Supreme Court orders the return of the exhibits to the Attorney General’s office and does not address the results of the testing of the DNA.  

September 29, 1995
Dennis files Post-Conviction Review petition.

April 16, 1996
Attorney Paul Boots enters appearance on behalf of Dennis.

June 17, 1996
State files Motion to Dismiss Dennis’ Post Conviction Review petition. (source: Post Conviction review opinion by Justice Marden)

July 8, 1997
Completed 9th year of jail/prison

December 29, 1997 
Dennis Dechaine files a Motion to Test Third Party’s Saliva (Senecal?).  (source: Post Conviction review opinion by Justice Marden)

January 16, 1998
Hearing held on pending motions for Post-Conviction Review and for testing of saliva.  (source: Post Conviction review opinion by Justice Marden)

January 9, 1999
Justice Marden denies Post Conviction review.  

April 26, 2000
Writ of Habeas Corpus petition filed in Federal Court by Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project and Maine atty Gene Libby.

July, 2000
Writ of Habeas Corpus in Federal District Court on grounds that trial violated Federal standards. Denied. Dennis chooses not to appeal out of despair.  Later, he changes his mind, but it was too late.

Jan, 2001
Steven Rowe becomes Maine Attorney General.

Summer, 2001
Maine passes Chapter 469 of the Acts of 2001, the DNA Testing Law.  It gave inmates the RIGHT to DNA testing AND it made illegal the destruction of DNA-related evidence illegal (9 years too late for Dennis Dechaine, but the new law’s prohibition speaks to the morality of the incineration of the rape kit and unidentified hairs by the Attorney General’s Office in 1992.

October 10, 2002
Author Jim Moore publishes “Human Sacrifice” with the conclusion that Dennis Dechaine is an innocent man, and that the real killer of Sarah Cherry is at large.

May, 2003
Motion for DNA Testing and Retrial filed with Knox County Superior Court.

Summer, 2003
In response to Human Sacrifice, the Maine Legislature passes Chapter 18 of the Special laws of the 121st Session, which commands the Attorney General to open his “confidential file” concerning this case to the general public.

February 8, 2004
Private Investigator Tom Cumler interviews alternate suspect, Doug Senecal at Senecal’s home in Florida. Senecal refuses to contribute a DNA sample (hair, blood or saliva) and seems to imply that he would not be surprised if the DNA found underneath Sarah Cherry’s thumbnail belonged to him. Senecal is asked whether he would be worried if the DNA found was his, and his response was, “Bingo, there you go.”

April, 2004
Missing extract used for 1993/94 testing is located and will be submitted for retesting.

Summer, 2004
Maine passes the “Dennis Dechaine Law,” which requires the video or audio taping of interrogations or admissions.

July 8, 2004
DNA tests reveal male DNA underneath Sarah Cherry’s thumbnail.

July 21, 2004
Attorney Michaela Murphy files motions to identify state employees who might have mistakenly contaminated the thumbnail DNA extract, and to require the state to inform the defense of other DNA-related activity.

October 29, 2004
Dennis Dechaine Day II at Maine State House.

December, 2004
Representative Ross Paradis (D-Frenchville) introduced Legislative Request (L.R. 2115) which is a Resolution urging Attorney General Steven Rowe to support a retrial for Dennis Dechaine.

December 11, 2004
Representative Ross Paradis (D-Frenchville) introduces Legislative Request (L.R. 2115), a resolution urging Attorney General Steven Rowe to support a retrial for Dennis Dechaine. The resolution is not adopted. More than 6,000 Mainers sign a petition supporting a full re-investigation of the Dechaine case.

April 4, 2005
A public opinion poll finds that 54% of Maine registered voters support a new trial for Dennis Dechaine while 25% percent oppose a new trial and 21% are not sure or have no opinion.

September 23, 2005
Hearing on Dennis’s May, 2003 Motion for a New Trial, 27 months after its May, 2003 filing.  At the hearing, Dennis withdrew the Motion for New Trial, after Judge Bradford ruled that he would consider only evidence in the case as was known in 1992, the date of the hearing of the first Motion for Retrial.  Dennis and his lawyers announced the plan to seek changes in the DNA law in the Legislature.

November 16, 2005
Judge Carl Bradford rules that Dennis’s withdrawal of the Motion for a New Trial is “without prejudice,” which means he can re-file the motion after the DNA testing statute is modified by the Legislature.

August 21, 2006
Three person panel issues report on the five allegations of police or prosecutorial misconduct in the Dennis Dechaine case.  Without a hearing or transcriptions of testimony or opportunity for Dennis Dechaine supporters to provide any input to the Commission, it decided that there was no such misconduct.  Trial and Error had written three letters to the Commission at its inception in 2004, but there was no response, whether by communication or by action.

Aug-Sept. 2006
James P. Moore files FOAA request for access to records of Dechaine panel, receives no response, and files an appeal. And Moore’s revised edition of Human Sacrifice is published. It contains information previously kept secret by the AG’s office until the State Legislature ordered its release.  Moore alleges evidence of official misconduct in the investigation and prosecution of the Dechaine case.

September 1, 2006 
Effective date of the DNA statute amendments.

July, 2007
Judge Robert E. Crowley denies Moore’s FOAA appeal. Moore appeals to State Supreme Court.

June, 2008
The Maine Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, denies FOAA appeal of James P. Moore, thus redefining and loosening Maine’s FOAA law.

August 28, 2008
A Motion for Retrial is filed by Dennis Dechaine’s attorneys.

October 12, 2008
Jon Lund, Maine’s first full-time attorney general, former district attorney and head of the Maine Law Review Commission, writes a letter to the editor of the Bangor Daily News. Lund asserts his belief that Dennis Dechaine did not receive a fair trial, and he calls for a retrial. The paper does not publish the letter, but this website does.

December, 2009
Renowned forensic pathologists Drs. Cyril Wecht and Walter Hofman issue independent reports on the time-of-death evidence, each concluding that Sarah Cherry died after Dennis Dechaine was already in police custody being questioned about the girl’s disappearance.July, 2010uly, 2010

July, 2010
It is revealed that Dennis Dechaine’s April hospitalization was for a suicide attempt by prescription medications. The AG’s office responds by indicting him for drug trafficking.

November, 2010
Judge Bradford rules that only DNA evidence will be heard in the yet-to-be-scheduled hearing on the Motion for Retrial. The time-of-death evidence will not be considered.

June, 2011
Legislature’s Judiciary Committee unanimously rejects LD 824, which would have broadened the scope of evidence admissible at a Motion-for-Retrial Hearing. However, the same legislative session passes, and Governor LePage signs into law, LD 373, which guarantees a defendant the right of appeal under the same statute.

July 29, 2011
At a preliminary hearing on the Motion for Retrial, Judge Bradford declines a motion to recuse himself, at least for the day, but says he will take it under consideration for the future. He also declines a “Claim of Innocence” motion to follow a precedent used in other states that would have allowed evidence other than DNA to be considered in making the decision about a retrial. He did, however, grant Attorney Steve Petersen’s request to compare the existing DNA sample to a larger database.

April, 2012
The Motion-for-Retrial Hearing requested by Dennis Dechaine’s attorneys in 2008 is scheduled to begin on May 23, 2012

May 8, 2012
The Motion-for-Retrial Hearing is rescheduled for June 12, 2012.

June 12, 2012
The motion-for-retrial hearing filed for in 2008 begins at the Cumberland Country Courthouse in Portland. The purpose of the hearing is to decide if a retrial will be granted. The decision will be made solely by Judge Carl. O. Bradford, who presided over the 1989 trial and subsequent appeals. (It was Judge Bradford who denied Dennis Dechaine’s request for DNA testing prior to the trial.) The principal question before Judge Bradford in this hearing is the possible significance of the unidentified DNA found on Sarah’s thumbnail in 1993. The state contends that the sample is contamination resulting from sloppy procedures by the staff of the medical examiner, and that it is of no significance. Dr. Greg Hampikian, an expert witness for the defense, argues that it is “probative evidence.” The judge is unable to rule on the motion for retrial due to a disagreement between the state and the defense concerning Touch DNA testing of remaining evidence, which was requested by the defense in the 2008 motion. The Deputy Attorney General contends that previous swabbing of the evidence by the state crime lab, which produced no results, satisfied the request for Touch DNA testing. Judge Bradford recesses the hearing on June 14th to allow for the Touch DNA testing.

June 19, 2012
More than two years after Dennis Dechaine attempted suicide by drug overdose and was charged with drug trafficking upon his revival, he is brought to trial on the charge. Timing of the drug trial in Rockland virtually coincides with the hearing in Portland that will decide if Dennis will be granted a retrial on the murder charge. After statewide publicity about the drug story, and double-duty by defense lawyer Steve Peterson to prepare for both proceedings, prosecutors accept Dennis’s offer to plead no-contest to misdemeanor possession in exchange for dropping the felony trafficking charge.

October 2, 2012
The Kennebec Journal publishes a letter to the editor written by Jon Lund, who, although not identified as such by the paper, was Maine’s first full-time attorney general and former head of the Maine Law Review Commission. In his letter, Lund urges current Attorney General William Schneider “to take a fresh look at the case and review whether his office is seeking that justice be done, as is its legal duty, or is simply defending the Dechaine conviction by every means available.”

October 13, 2012
Maine media report that initial results from the DNA testing done by Orchid Cellmark, a lab in Texas, may exonerate Dennis Dechaine of murdering Sarah Cherry and implicate an alternate suspect. Cellmark found partial DNA profiles on the items tested: a scarf from Dennis’s truck used to strangle the victim, and the girl’s tee-shirt and bra. (Partial profiles cannot absolutely include a suspect, but can exclude or not exclude a suspect.) Conflicting interpretations of the partial profiles by the lab, by the state, and by DNA expert Hampikian include a finding that Dennis cannot not be excluded as a contributor, but that the strongest results implicate a known alternate suspect. The identity of the alternate suspect is not revealed.

October 19, 2012
Maine media report that officials involved in the case, including Judge Bradford, have agreed to a continued delay of the motion-for-retrial hearing in order to allow for additional DNA testing. The new testing is aimed at pinpointing the alternate suspect.October 29, 1957

June 13, 2012
Denise Brewer Whitmore, of Monmouth, Maine emails Trial and Error with her account of Doug Senecal's sister Sheila Appleton (now deceased) telling her of her brother's having admitted to killing Sarah Cherry.  Whitmore relates that Appleton told her of her brother's admission mere moments after it is supposed to have taken place. She also says Appleton was wrought up and in tears, qualifying her account as an "excited utterance" exception to the hearsay rule that usually excludes such testimony in court. 

June 19, 2012
More than two years after Dennis Dechaine attempted suicide by drug overdose and was charged with drug trafficking upon his revival, he is brought to trial on the charge. Timing of the drug trial in Rockland virtually coincides with the hearing in Portland that will decide if Dennis will be granted a retrial on the murder charge. After statewide publicity about the drug story, and double-duty by defense lawyer Steve Peterson to prepare for both proceedings, prosecutors accept Dennis’s offer to plead no-contest to misdemeanor possession in exchange for dropping the felony trafficking charge.

October 2, 2012
The Kennebec Journal publishes a letter to the editor written by Jon Lund, who, although not identified as such by the paper, was Maine’s first full-time attorney general and former head of the Maine Law Review Commission. In his letter, Lund urges current Attorney General William Schneider “to take a fresh look at the case and review whether his office is seeking that justice be done, as is its legal duty, or is simply defending the Dechaine conviction by every means available.”

October 13, 2012
Maine media report that initial results from the DNA testing done by Orchid Cellmark, a lab in Texas, may exonerate Dennis Dechaine of murdering Sarah Cherry and implicate an alternate suspect. Cellmark found partial DNA profiles on the items tested: a scarf from Dennis’s truck used to strangle the victim, and the girl’s tee-shirt and bra. (Partial profiles cannot absolutely include a suspect, but can exclude or not exclude a suspect.) Conflicting interpretations of the partial profiles by the lab, by the state, and by DNA expert Hampikian include a finding that Dennis cannot not be excluded as a contributor, but that the strongest results implicate a known alternate suspect. The identity of the alternate suspect is not revealed.

October 19, 2012
Maine media report that officials involved in the case, including Judge Bradford, have agreed to a continued delay of the motion-for-retrial hearing in order to allow for additional DNA testing. The new testing is aimed at pinpointing the alternate suspect.

May 5, 2014
An FOAA request is filed with Assistant Attorney General William Stokes seeking the "written statement" from Sheila Appleton mentioned on State Police Detective Steven Drake's June 29, 1992 official narrative report. Drake reported picking up Appleton’s statement from her at  her home and forwarding it to the AG's Office just days before Dennis Dechaine's 1992 federal habeas hearing.  Given Denise Brewer Whitmore's account (see above) of Appleton telling her that her brother admitted to having killed Sarah Cherry, the document likely attested to this.

 May 12 - June 2, 2014
Extended email correspondence takes place with Assistant AG Stokes regarding the FOAA (Freedom of Access Act) request about the missing written Appleton document. Bottom line: It’s still missing.  Also, curiously, in Stokes's final response to the request, he forwards trial prosecutor Eric Wright's hypothesis that Sheila Appleton's written statement may have been a recantation, not of her telling Denise Brewer Whitmore that her brother Doug Senecal admitted to killing Sarah Cherry, but that Jackie Crossman's accusation of her stepfather Doug Senecal for abusing her wasn't really true, and that Jackie had made it simply in retaliation for Senecal having grounded her.  

October, 2014
The Portland polling company Critical Insights releases a Maine Tracking Survey showing that 57% of Mainers polled favor a retrial for Dennis, 29% oppose a retrial, and 14% "didn't know.”

July, 2015
Maine's Supreme Judicial Court denies Dennis's motion for a new trial under Maine's Post-Conviction DNA Statute.  The ruling has a number of inaccuracies, which Trial and Error challenges in a point-by-point response.

July, 2016
Jordan Bailey, investigative reporter for the Rockland Courier-Gazette, writes a three-part series on Dennis's case history with an emphasis on the many questions surrounding it.  It is followed by a hard-hitting editorial calling upon Maine to re-think its post-conviction review process and add provisions recommended by the Innocence Project.

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