Trial and Error

The Outcry for Justice in the Dennis Dechaine Case

Columnist Reade Brower

(from Village Soup,Camden Herald, Courier-Gazette)

'Making a Murderer' and Dennis Dechaine

By Reade Brower | Feb 04, 2016

"If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons." 

--- James Thurber, writer, cartoonist (1894-1961)

Injustice is subjective; everyone has their own ideas about right and wrong and what is over the edge. In the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” what was appalling to me and many others was a shoulder-shrug to others. It was interesting that a documentary could be viewed as slanted; showing snippets does sway one's opinion and simple omission of facts and the way others are presented can color a story.

The 10-part documentary took me about 10 days, binge-watching the last four episodes (over four hours) on a recent Saturday night, bleary-eyed into the wee hours of Sunday. For those who haven’t seen it and want to, this is a “spoiler alert” – go straight to the next part about a case in Maine that is also haunting; the 1988 case of Dennis Dechaine.

So, you’re still here with me; let me start by telling you that this is the only time in the history of my television watching that I found myself screaming at the TV, loud and often. I was angry not just at the injustice, but with the obvious complicity of a police department bound and determined to get their man, seemingly regardless of truth.

The police determined Steven Avery did it and he wasn’t going to get away with it, even if it meant planting a little blood (a blood sample later found in his files looked to have been possibly tampered with) and coercing a defenseless 16-year-old nephew with a 70 IQ to confess to putting Avery as mastermind, and abetting him in the brutal rape and murder of a woman, even though no substantial blood was found, even though they allegedly cut her throat and shot her multiple times in the head.

Enough of the confession was shown in this documentary to show the detectives leading the witness, hellbent on feeding him into the right story to bolster the case, regardless of truth, and without any attorney or parental figure in the room. The conclusion of this interview was set before the interrogation; it was just a matter of time and took the necessary amount of browbeating for them to get where they need to go.

And then there was the fact that Avery was suing the police for $36 million for his earlier wrongful 18-year imprisonment for rape and kidnapping; can you spell "m-o-t-i-v-e"?

The documentary took many twists and turns throughout the 10-plus hours and the woven story was one that created as many questions as it answered.

In the end, it proved at least one thing; that Steven Avery deserves a new trial. This is a water cooler topic, and there seem to be different shades of opinion on where Avery fits into the crime. I think there are too many wrongs in how the local police, after agreeing to stay out of the investigation because of the past false conviction and the $36 million lawsuit, continued to put themselves into the alleged crime scene.

The victim’s car key turning up in a very visible spot (with Avery's DNA, but not the victim's), after many previous visits to the Avery trailer, the victim’s car being found was the proverbial finding the needle in the haystack, the possibly tainted test tube of blood from a previous case, and the lack of substantial blood in what was described as a brutal rape and murder with multiple stabbings and shooting to the head all lead to, at the least, reasonable doubt.

Then police find a bullet in another part of the complex, but again, no blood. Bones of the victim in the backyard incinerated and then put in different spots without an explanation of why from the prosecution. What was most compelling to me was the timeline inconsistencies; a bus driver said she saw the victim taking photos (her job) during her bus route, which would have been a full 45 minutes after Avery supposedly was witnessed by the person I think might have done it, abducting the victim into his trailer. The show did not explore the alternative suspect angle enough for any concrete conclusions.

Since the series aired, there has been criticism that many important facts were omitted from the documentary and NBC and "Dateline" weighed in with a few, but nothing to really change the scope of the documentary.

Many people feel there is a chance that perhaps Avery did it, but I can’t get by the dishonest police work and a judge who won’t even consider giving Avery a new trial, even as new evidence surfaces suggesting a retrial is in order.

In a “he said, she said,” the accused almost always wears it for the rest of their life, no matter what the final verdict is. In the past, I have advocated lie detector tests for all in a “he said, she said” case. I know that is not foolproof, but at least it gives you one more piece of information to go on and isn’t it the truth that matters? And what about the innocent; if we can put one more nail into the case, why not?

***

In Maine, Dennis Dechaine was convicted in 1988 of abducting and murdering a 12-year girl named Sarah Cherry and his case has taken many of the same kind of twists and turns over the years.

Most recently, he, like Avery, has asked for a new trial and been rebuffed.

There is new evidence that firmly establishes the timeline of the Cherry murder at a time when Dechaine had an ironclad alibi; he was in custody being questioned by police. In the first Avery trial, where DNA proved his innocence and led to the real killer, Avery had 75 witnesses placing him 75 miles away from the rape, yet the eyewitness account was believed. It has been shown that eyewitness accounts are highly unreliable and also that police have ways of "helping a witness" remember what the police want them to remember.

As the Dechaine case nears its 30-year anniversary, like Avery, no new trial for him, even as evidence mounts that a lot in this case simply does not add up. The same judge continues to deny a retrial, ignoring the new time-of-death testimony and ignoring various inconsistencies and breaches of protocol, including the incineration of the original rape kit; ordered destroyed by the AG’s office while the case was still on appeal in 1992. The AG reportedly called it “routine housekeeping.”

Also missing was hair found on the victim’s body, which was neither Cherry’s or Dechaine’s, and a written statement that Sheila Appleton wrote saying that her brother, Doug Senecal, confessed to murdering Cherry; Appleton is now deceased and the statement missing.

Other discrepancies remain; for instance, Detective Mark Westrum’s altered notes that Dechaine claims turned his protest of innocence into an alleged confession.

From a local perspective, Dechaine spent years at the Maine State Prison in Warren, and I personally know several people who vouch for him as a fine person, and a person who is gentle and has personally helped many prisoners expand their education and their perspective during their incarceration. I know others who think he did it because of the verdict of public opinion which developed from just the accusations alone, and the general outcry that he must have done it; after all, someone had to take the fall for this so that everyone else's life could go back to some kind of normal.

Is this another “Making of a Murderer” in the works?

The cases are similar and different; but in the end both deserve to be revisited and common sense screams that new trials should be granted if the end goal is justice, and if you believe that justice is about truth.

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