Trial and Error

The Outcry for Justice in the Dennis Dechaine Case

Posted Public’s right to know clouded by court ruling

Jun 20, 2008

— What is billed as a setback for Dennis Dechaine — the Bowdoinham farmer serving a life sentence for a murder he said he didn’t commit — is a court decision that could hurt a great number of Mainers.

A sharply divided Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a panel hand-picked by Attorney General Steven Rowe to investigate charges of wrongdoing by the police and prosecutors in the Dechaine case was not performing a government function, and so was not subject to the Freedom of Access Act.

Even though Rowe created the panel, selected its members and told them what to investigate, the court majority ruled that the panel was a private organization and did not have to turn over records of its investigation to a member of the public.

According to the majority opinion penned by Justice Donald Alexander, the panel was not created by legislative mandate or an executive order, so it did not fall within the law’s compass.

This narrow reading cannot be what the Legislature intended when it created the Freedom of Access law, and this interpretation should not be allowed to stand.

If it did, the governor or any executive branch official could convene informal panels to conduct public business in private. As long as there was no formal government action to create the panel and its members were not paid, teams of lobbyists could write state policy.

When it convenes next year, the Legislature should amend the law to close this gaping loophole on legitimate public access.

The irony of the dispute is that Rowe created the panel to quell public controversy over the Dechaine prosecution.

Now, the refusal of the three panel members to turn over their notes has provided fuel to those who believe that the government is hiding something.

Rowe, who is not a party to this case, and the Attorney General’s Office would probably have been better off if the documents had been released. Instead, questions about the process linger.

Our position on this decision is not an endorsement of the claims made by Dechaine and his supporters. He has an opportunity to file a motion for a new trial based on newly discovered DNA evidence, and his case should be resolved in court, not the public arena.

This ruling has less to do with Dechaine’s case than it does with a panel intended to answer questions about a criminal investigation.

Instead, it has raised more questions, both about this investigation and the public’s right to know.

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