Mar 3, 2010
Lincoln County News
By Lucy L. Martin
Two nationally acclaimed forensic pathologists challenge conclusions that helped convict Dennis Dechaine of the 1988 murder of a 12-year-old Bowdoin girl.
Dechaine’s attorney, Steve Peterson, of Rockport, said this week Dr. Cyril Wecht and Dr. Walter Hofman reviewed the case. They concluded that when the Bowdoinham farmer came out of the woods July 6, 1988 and was taken into police custody about 9 p.m., Sarah Cherry, who had earlier disappeared from the house where she was babysitting, was still alive.
In April 2009, criminal defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey joined the defense team for Dechaine, who is serving a life sentence in state prison for Cherry’s murder. Speaking before Bangor businessmen last week about job training for released prisoners, Bailey mentioned his consulting role in the Dechaine case and recent reports by “two experts,” describing the pathologists as “one a household name, the other at the top of his professional ladder.”
Taped by WCSH-TV, Bailey said, “I have looked at the written reports and they are totally inconsistent with guilt.”
Medical examiner Dr. Ronald Roy argued at the 1989 trial that the victim died a minimum of 30-36 hours – “and it could well be longer,” he testified – before the body was discovered and before an autopsy was performed (two days after Cherry’s disappearance).
In reviewing Roy’s findings, Hofman disagreed with the examiner’s opinion, placing the death at about 16 hours after Dechaine was taken into custody, while Wecht said the earliest possible time was about seven hours afterward.
Wecht is clinical professor at the University of Pittsburgh Schools of Medicine & Dental Medicine and an editorial board member of more than 20 forensic scientific publications. His expertise and opinion have figured in many high profile cases, including the assassinations of Pres. John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, as well as the JonBenet Ramsey and OJ Simpson cases.
Hofman spent nearly 25 years in the Depts. of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, is former chair of laboratory medicine at Roxborough Hospital, Philadelphia, and a designated forensic pathologist for the State of New Jersey.
Peterson is preparing for a court hearing in September. A change in state law several years ago regarding DNA evidence allows the court to “consider old evidence as well as new,” the attorney said.
Peterson said he thinks the pathologists’ reports tie in because of the testimony given at the time of the 1989 trial alleging “30 hours and possibly more” had passed between Cherry’s death and the time she was discovered on Friday noon, July 8. He will ask Justice Carl Bradford, who presided in 1989, to consider Wecht’s and Hofman’s opinions as the defense seeks a new trial for Dechaine.
Peterson also said he wants some of the original evidence to be subjected to a new type of “touch” DNA testing. Earlier DNA analysis used “a different methodology,” he said, that tested “random spots” on an item. Touch testing involves scraping an entire item, such as a shirt or scarf, with a razor blade and doing DNA testing on everything collected.
Six years after Dechaine was convicted, further tests revealed male DNA from an unknown source under Cherry’s thumbnail. State law was changed in 2006 allowing the court to convene a new trial if it seemed possible that DNA evidence would result in a different verdict.
Dechaine requested DNA testing at the time of his trial but the judge ruled against it.
Peterson said his team will be discussing whether it is “prudent or practical” to do a more sophisticated type of DNA testing, called miniSTR, which allows highly degraded samples to be analyzed. The technology was developed in the aftermath of the World Trade Center 9-11 attacks to identify victims’ remains.