The latest development in the murder case offers further proof, as though any more were needed, that our state's criminal justice system is broken.
By Jeffrey Evangelos Special to the Telegram
Jordan Andrews’ startling report in last week’s Maine Sunday Telegram, revealing that the latest DNA technology has excluded Dennis Dechaine from critical crime scene evidence, not only bolsters Dechaine’s longstanding claim of innocence but raises serious questions about the continuing misconduct and obstruction of justice in the Maine Attorney General’s Office.
In an April 2017 letter to Maine’s Judiciary Committee, the New England Innocence Project wrote that the state’s abysmal post-conviction record “gives Maine the distinction of being the only U.S. state without a felony exoneration – a statistic that should be a matter of great concern to all who live in Maine.”
This letter was submitted as testimony in 2017 in support of a bill to reform Maine’s post-conviction statute. The bill was killed by the Judiciary Committee immediately after the chief of the Attorney General’s Criminal Division, Lisa Marchese, wrongly claimed the state supported the release on bail of Anthony Sanborn. She testified that Maine’s current post-conviction statute was working great. Marchese would later write a letter of apology to the committee and receive a letter of reprimand from the attorney general. Sanborn was freed in 2017 after spending 27 years in prison for the 1989 murder of 16-year-old Jessica Briggs.
Dechaine is serving a life sentence for the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry in 1988 in the town of Bowdoin. Maine’s Attorney General Aaron Frey opposed the new round of DNA testing in Dechaine’s case, which has now established beyond any reasonable doubt that the state has failed the legal burden of proof to affirm a conviction. Dechaine should be released from prison.
With the state’s case now resembling Swiss cheese, it should act quickly to terminate this tragic saga. There is no justice for a victim’s family when we have the wrong person in prison. Imagine having a loved one sitting in prison, knowing evidence to free them is being blocked by the Attorney General’s Office – an agency which is supposed to protect our rights. This is no one’s idea of justice.
In the 130th Legislature, both houses passed L.D.-54, a bill that would have ended these draconian time limits on the introduction of newly discovered evidence. Attorney General Frey killed the reforms by slapping an enormous and unjustified fiscal note on this bill, despite it passing in the House 88-51 and unanimously in the Senate.
Frey’s failure to support post-conviction relief and to support DNA testing that could exonerate a criminal defendant is contradicted by the activities of Maine’s cold case unit.
Just last week, Maine State Police made an arrest in a 1996 sexual assault case using the latest DNA technology. What kind of a justice system could operate in this unjust, inconsistent and contradictory manner? One that is irrevocably broken, staffed with people at the highest level of the Attorney General’s Office who suffer from inherent bias, infected by ethical and moral corruption.
Any prosecutor who would willfully keep an innocent person in a cage using arcane provisions of law and blocking newly discovered evidence that would free a person when they know the evidence exists, is not just ethically and morally corrupt. They’ve crossed the line into obstruction of justice, violations of due process, the right to a fair hearing and a serious violation of a defendant’s civil rights.
In 1989, Justice Carl O. Bradford presided over the Dechaine case. More than 20 years later, in 2011, he would come out of retirement to hear, at the time, the latest Dechaine appeal, despite having made repeated unjustified rulings, including the 1989 ruling to deny Dechaine’s request for DNA testing. Requests that he recuse himself were denied.
Finally, this past July, Justice Bruce Mallonee ordered the DNA testing over the objections of the Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber. Now that the tests have excluded Dechaine, the state should release him.
Tragically, Maine’s broken criminal justice system doesn’t stop there. Look at Maine’s record of zero innocence exonerations in serious felony post-conviction appeals; our record on unjustified police shootings (188-0, all justified); the well-publicized collapse of our Indigent legal defense system; (just last week highlighted by Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill); the absence of parole; and the sealed files regarding contaminations in Maine’s Crime Lab all point to systemic collapse.
Zero is an operative number. It means there is no justice system in Maine, regardless of the circumstances. It’s not a functioning criminal justice system. The police, prosecutors and the Attorney General’s Office are always right, the people are always wrong. It reminds me of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” where one set of people assume extrajudicial and extraconstitutional authority to the detriment of the rest. (“Some animals are more equal than others.”)
It’s time for the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to intervene and put Maine’s criminal justice system under federal review and supervision. I plan on writing him. It’s long overdue.