Trial and Error

The Outcry for Justice in the Dennis Dechaine Case

Trial & Error Newsletter – September, 2015

Sep 14, 2015

NOT GOING AWAY UNTIL JUSTICE IS DONE

Dear Supporters:

The following is a series of recent opinion pieces and letters to the editor concerning Dennis’s case. In short, the media are saying that Trial and Error should accept defeat; our replies below indicate our belief in the opposite.

If you are similarly motivated, please consider writing your own letter to the editor. And, of course, we welcome your financial contributions as well, as the costs involved in obtaining and finally undergoing a new trial are substantial.

Please send them to: Trial and Error, P.O. Box 153, Madawaska, ME, 04756.

Thank you from the Board of Directors of Trial and Error.

Carol Waltman, president
Bill Bunting
Genie Nakell
Bob MacLaughlin
Nancy Farrin
Don Dechaine
Bernie Huebner
Steve Sandau

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Staff opinion from Portland Press Herald, July 22, 2015:

It is time for Dechaine’s champions to lay case to rest The Trial & Error group has exposed problems around the case but has not exonerated Dechaine.

By Greg Kesich

On a July night in 1988, about 100 friends were gathered at the Wunderbar in Madawaska, celebrating their 10th high school reunion. The party was loud and boisterous until a familiar face flashed on a TV screen.

“It was Dennis,” remembered Carol Waltman in a 2003 interview. “That mug shot, that terrible mug shot. Everybody just said, ‘Oh, my God,’ and that was the end of the party.”

And it was the beginning of Trial and Error, the group that has fought for the last 27 years to exonerate Dennis Dechaine, the Bowdoinham farmer who is serving a life sentence for the murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry. With the group’s support, Dechaine has challenged his 1989 conviction in every legal jurisdiction available to him and every time he has lost.

With a ruling Tuesday against Dechaine by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, it’s time for the Trial and Error party to end.

When you look at something long enough, you change it. And that’s what Trial and Error has done over these years. More than 500 murders have been committed in Maine since Sarah Cherry disappeared, dozens investigated by the same detectives who made the case against Dechaine.

The same prosecutors and the same judge were involved in thousands of other cases. But only one keeps coming back year after year. What’s different is not the evidence – it’s Trial and Error. The light the group has shined has exposed flaws in the way evidence was collected back in the 1980s. They have uncovered sloppy techniques by detectives who scribbled notes instead of recording interviews. And they have stirred up unethical behavior by Dechaine’s first lawyer, George Carlton, who apparently went around telling his buddies that his client was guilty.

But, despite their claims, they have not exonerated Dechaine.

The Trial and Error arguments fall into three camps.

The first group are Dechaine’s family and friends, who insist that the gentle soul they called “Mouse” could not have done what he is accused of. The second are those who argue that DNA evidence proves his innocence, and the third follows the arcane theories of author James Moore, who says he can prove Dechaine is innocent.

None of these arguments has done anything but keep the movement going. Not being “the type” doesn’t prove anything. I am convinced that no one really knows anyone else, especially when it comes to questions of sexual desire. We all get surprised at some point in our lives when we learn something about a friend, a relative, a spouse or even about ourselves. If Dechaine was harboring urges to rape and murder a child, we shouldn’t be shocked if he kept it secret.

Dechaine’s best arguments have involved DNA. Dechaine demanded DNA testing of evidence before the start of his trial, something a guilty defendant wouldn’t do. Years after his trial, one of the victim’s thumbnails was found to have her own blood and some DNA from an unknown male. The sample was too weak to identify any individual, but it excluded Dechaine.

But it’s not the proof that Dechaine’s backers claim. They can’t connect the DNA to the crime. There were plenty of chances for the fingernail to be contaminated over the years with someone else’s DNA, and no way to prove that the killer was its source. DNA is powerful evidence, but it’s not magic. It can only tell part of a story.

Moore’s theories are based on his interpretation of the state’s evidence. He says someone else could have kidnapped Cherry, planted papers from Dechaine’s truck at the crime scene, murdered her in the woods and escaped unnoticed while swarms of police were in the area looking for her. Moore uses the medical examiner’s testimony to make his own time-of-death calculation, which he says clears Dechaine because Cherry would have still been alive when he was taken into custody.

It makes for an intriguing book (he wrote “Human Sacrifice” in 2002) but not much else.

Here’s what we know:

On the night of July 6, 1988, Dennis Dechaine walked out of the woods in rural Bowdoin. He told police that he had been fishing and lost his way. Eventually, Sarah Cherry was found stabbed to death with a small blade, tied up with rope matching a piece in Dechaine’s barn, gagged with a scarf that belonged to Dechaine and left in a site about 400 feet away from his truck.

His papers were found at the last place Sarah had been seen alive, and the penknife he kept on his keychain had vanished.

Circumstantial evidence? Sure. But a lot of it. Dechaine is either guilty or the unluckiest guy on the planet. It’s time to leave this case alone, and let Sarah Cherry rest in peace.

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Letter to Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel responding to Kesich,

July 29, 2015:

Trial & Error will disband only after Dechaine retrial

According to Press Herald editor Greg Kesich (commentary, “It is time for Dechaine’s Trial & Error champions to lay his case to rest,” July 23), retired ATF agent Jim Moore “uses the medical examiner’s testimony to make his own time-of-death calculation, which he says clears (Dennis) Dechaine because Cherry would have still been alive when he was taken into custody.”

In fact, if one does the math, assistant state medical examiner Ronald Roy’s initial testimony, based on standard forensic science, also placed Sarah’s death after Dechaine’s whereabouts were known. More recently, renowned forensic pathologists Drs. Cyril Wecht and Walter Hofman, having studied the time-of-death evidence, concluded that Dechaine could not have killed Sarah.

Although the post-conviction DNA statute calls for the consideration of “all the evidence in the case, old and new,” the trial judge and the Law Court has chosen not to allow a jury to consider the affidavits of Wecht and Hofman, nor contemporaneous notes by detectives that undermine their testimony that Dechaine confessed. Kesich wants Trial & Error to disappear; we will happily comply when Dechaine is given a retrial in which a jury hears all of the evidence

William Bunting

Whitefield

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Letter from Jim Moore from P. 49 of Coastal Journal, July 30, 2015:

WHO KEEPS MAINE’S ATTORNEY GENERAL HONEST?

In 2006, accusations of crimes by the AG’s prosecutors were publicly aired. They included concealing evidence, destroying evidence and using perjured police testimony in a murder trial. The accusations were supported by official reports found in the AG’s “confidential file,” kept secret until the Legislature ordered the AG to make it available to the public under the state’s Freedom of Access Act (where anyone may read it today).

The AG handpicked three private lawyers to “investigate” those allegations.

Those handpicked lawyers issued an opinion that none of the accusations against the AG’s people “have any substantial merit.” Then they fought all the way to Maine’s Supreme Court to avoid having to show any evidence supporting that opinion, and won.

Why did the AG ask that panel of private lawyers to investigate? Because, the Court wrote, “Before creating the panel, the Attorney General’s office (AG Rowe and Deputy AG Linda Pistner, according to Pistner‘s affidavit) discussed whether there was any effective way to conduct an independent review within the state government of the alleged misconduct in the Dechaine case and eventually concluded there was not.”

(Maine Supreme Judicial Court Decision: 2008 ME 100, Docket: Cum-07-467).

It’s interesting that only one Maine prosecutor has ever been “penalized” for misconduct. She concealed evidence in a rape case. She was suspended, but her suspension was suspended on condition she receive training in professional ethics. (Portland Press Herald, July 19, 2013, “Prosecutor suspended from practice for 30 days”).

James P. Moore

Brunswick

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Former Judge echoes editorial in Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel, August 10, 2015:

‘Amen’ to call for end to Dechaine saga Former district court judge agrees with commentary by Press Herald editor.

By John Benoit

Dennis Dechaine has unsuccessfully challenged his 1989 murder conviction of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry in every legal jurisdiction available to him. Maine’s highest court recently denied his latest appeal for a new trial. Subsequently, a newspaper commentary (“It is time for Dechaine’s Trial & Error champions to lay his case to rest,” July 23) by Greg Kesich, editorial page editor at the Portland Press Herald, sensibly crusaded for a conclusion of this 26-year legal saga.

Predictably, William Bunting’s retaliation (“Trial & Error will disband only after Dechaine retrial,” July 29) echoes 26 years of blatant disregard of ample trial evidence pointing to Dechaine’s guilt. What part of Dechaine’s trial court record supporting the jury’s verdict of guilty doesn’t Bunting understand? In earlier repetitive goings-on, Dechaine and champions clad in supportive Tshirts, contended he was framed by “someone” who could have kidnapped Sarah and planted papers from Dechaine’s truck in the driveway of the house where she was kidnapped. That contention was invalidated when the trial record showed his truck was locked at all material times. Moreover, Dechaine had secretly placed his truck keys behind his seat in the police cruiser, allowing him to later claim they were missing.

At trial, Dechaine stood hip deep in circumstantial evidence. Sarah Cherry was stabbed to death by a small blade, tied up with rope matching a piece in Dechaine’s barn, gagged with a scarf belonging to Dechaine and his papers were found at the last place Sarah was seen alive. The penknife Dennis kept on his key chain had vanished.

Fifteen years of appellate cases in Maine’s attorney general’s office led me to a decision by Maine’s Supreme Court, authored by Chief Justice Armand Dufresne. The reason circumstantial evidence is basis for conviction is legendary. The decision even quotes Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” presenting in laymen’s language how circumstantial evidence “works.” In “Hamlet,” Lord Polonious insists,”If circumstances lead me, I will find where truth is hid.” I respectfully add “Amen” to Kesich’s compelling conclusion: “It’s time to leave this case alone, and let Sarah Cherry rest in peace.”

John Benoit, of Manchester, a former state senator, also was a Maine district court judge from 1975-1992.

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Letter to editor rebuts Judge Benoit in Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel, August 15,

2015:

Something always odd about Dechaine case I read Judge John Benoit’s recent Another View, “‘Amen’ to call for end to Dechaine saga,” and while I understand that he’s tired of seeing people defend a possibly innocent man, I have some other thoughts.

Dennis Dechaine’s legal appeals don’t change the case. The facts are still what they are, and that is why I think he deserves a new trial. Something has always been odd about this case, and many people agree with me. “Ample evidence” is an interesting phrase. At the time of the trial, prosecutors called it “overwhelming.” I guess it’s not as good as it was then. And DNA testing was denied at the original trial and the state destroyed evidence from the case before an appeal. So “evidence” only means what’s left after that.

What I find really interesting is the complete lack of any direct evidence of the victim (blood, hair, etc.) on Dechaine, or vice-versa. And, there was no evidence, not even one hair, in Dechaine’s truck from the victim, either. Considering the crime, how is that even possible?

Hidden or missing keys mean little when you realize that the truck could be locked without a key, so we definitely do not know the “truck was locked at all material times.” If the truck had been left unlocked, anyone could have taken things from the truck and locked it afterwards. Someone else certainly could have done this easily without planning.

Overall, with testing denied, field notes altered, evidence destroyed and alternate suspects not pursued, it seems pretty obvious that Dechaine was determined to be guilty before the trial. That bothers me, and it should bother anyone who cares about justice.

And as far as Hamlet goes, we know that’s just fiction.

Steve Sandau

Brunswick

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Letter offers new evidence of Dechaine’s innocence in Kennebec

Journal/Morning Sentinel, August 17, 2015:

Two articles suggest Dechaine case not over My Aug. 10 newspaper has two front-page articles that suggest the Dennis Dechaine case could be far from over. One, “Missive’s location remains mystery,” describes an alleged note — now missing — from Gov. Paul LePage threatening to withhold $500,000 in state funding to Good Will-Hinckley if the board of directors did not rescind its job offer to House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. In the Dechaine case, the state police log for June 29, 1992 (soon after Dechaine filed a motion for retrial) states that Detective Steven Drake “received a written statement from Sheila Appleton. See attached.” At the head of the log is typed a note stating that Drake believed the attorney general’s office received “the enclosures,” which are now missing.

There is ample reason to believe Appleton’s statement described her brother’s confession to killing Sarah Cherry. Appleton is deceased, but another woman confirms that this is what Appleton told her after hearing the confession. The attorney general’s office, responding to a FOIA request, hypothesizes that Appleton’s missing statement may have retracted her claim that her brother confessed. If that is the case, why wasn’t this offered as central to the state’s case against Dechaine? LePage’s physical note is not considered essential to Eves’s case, while Appleton’s could exonerate a man in prison for life.

The second story, “Police temporarily suspending Canton property search,” reports about the searching for the remains of a 17-year-old Jay girl missing since 1986 and assumed murdered.

I applaud their efforts and wish them success, but would ask why the same energy is not being expended bringing Sarah Cherry’s real murderer to justice. Is it because too many investigators, prosecutors, judges, columnists and members of the media will look bad if the incontrovertible evidence of Dechaine’s innocence is ever allowed to surface?

Bernie Huebner

Waterville

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Letter to Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel calls for media to investigate,

August 24, 2015:

Time to dig deeper into Dechaine case

Thank you for publishing Bernie Huebner’s Aug. 17 letter, “Two articles suggest Dechaine case not over.” In doing so, you have brought to public attention a vital piece of information about the Sarah Cherry murder case that might have led the jury to a verdict other than the conviction of Dennis

Dechaine, who has now been imprisoned for 27 years. While we don’t know for sure if the written statement Sheila Appleton gave to Detective Steven Drake said her brother had confessed to the murder, we do know that statement is missing from police files. We also know that an acquaintance of Appleton has claimed publicly that a sobbing Appleton told her about the confession immediately after her brother allegedly made it.

Among other potentially vital evidence that is missing are unidentified fingerprints, a blood sample from Dechaine, and DNA material that the attorney general’s office deliberately incinerated. At the time, the DNA was most likely fresh enough to have solved the crime by itself, one way or another.

A nagging question for me is why few, if any, members of the news media have ever investigated the disappearance of all this information, even though the trail starts in public records available to everyone. If we no longer have a free press able and willing to roll up its sleeves and actively watch over our democracy, we’re in a lot of trouble. Kudos to the newspaper for at least getting this revelation about the Dechaine case onto your editorial page. Now let’s get it on the front page.

Bob MacLaughlin

Clifton

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