Jul 28, 2016
Please see clarifications at the end of this article.
This week we end our series on the case of Dennis Dechaine, who was convicted in 1989 for the murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry. Without solid proof either way, his story forces us to consider the possibility of wrongful conviction.
Since DNA testing began, 342 people have been exonerated in the United States. None of these has been in Maine, possibly because of the restrictions on post-conviction review.
Evidence has mounted since Dechaine's conviction that points to his innocence, including testimony from forensic experts about the time of death occurring after Dechaine was picked up by police, discrepancies between detectives' trial testimony about Dechaine’s alleged admissions and their notes on those statements, and statements implicating potential alternate perpetrators with histories of sexual assault — we found statements to police from 2004 implicating two more sex offenders in a review of the case files on Monday.
The evidence against Dechaine has been repeatedly called "mountainous," "voluminous" and "substantial" in denials of his appeals. But it can all be explained by his contention that he was framed. The state has not taken that argument seriously enough to rebut it. Is it inconceivable that a killer would plant items at the scene implicating another person?
Many have argued that after numerous proceedings and denials, Dechaine and his supporters should lay the case to rest. But those denials were based on the technicalities of the post-conviction review and DNA statutes, a narrow interpretation of which allows only DNA evidence to be admitted in court hearings.
While Dechaine has been locked up, the state has blocked any new evidence from coming before a jury in two ways that also illustrate a double standard at work in this case.
First, the state destroyed all the DNA evidence associated with the case — the one codified way for a convict to prove his innocence — as part of a routine cleaning. This has seriously hindered Dechaine's ability to get a new trial. The only DNA evidence that remained was blood on a thumbnail clipping. Tests excluded Dechaine as a source, but the blood could not be definitively connected to the crime. Further attempts by the defense to scrape Cherry's clothing for bits of DNA 25 years after the murder yielded only degraded strands. A technician from the lab that did the DNA analysis said at a hearing the DNA obtained from the clothing items was “of low quality,” leading to "confusing interpretations" and “inconclusive results.”
Dechaine had been denied the chance to test the actual biological evidence connected to the crime — when it was still available — because of testimony on the low likelihood of getting good results. But when inconclusive test results of low-quality, degraded DNA appeared not to rule out Dechaine (1 in 374 Caucasian men could be a source), that was used against him as a reason to deny him a new trial.
Second, the state successfully moved to dismiss Dechaine's 1995 petition for a new trial by invoking a statutory amendment written by the Attorney General's Office allowing a petition to be dismissed on technicalities deemed to put the state at a disadvantage. The state made the dubious claim that a former defense lawyer had spread rumors of Dechaine’s guilt. Because that lawyer had recently suffered a stroke and could no longer testify, the state claimed a disadvantage.
The courts accepted these allegations as reasons to dismiss the petition, yet in Dechaine's 1992 hearing for a new trial, they rejected testimony regarding out-of-court statements implicating an alternative suspect as "hearsay."
State workers revisit the case with a certain weariness, while high-ranking officials have lashed out at those who insist Dechaine is innocent. Former Attorney General Michael Carpenter wrote in a letter to two Dechaine supporters, “I have never seen a case in which I have been more persuaded of a defendant’s guilt. The matter is simply not open to rational debate.”
Former Attorney General William Stokes wrote in a letter that Dechaine's claim of innocence was "bogus" and that his timing of the filing of his petition for post-conviction review was a “transparent and cynical” attempt to disadvantage the state.
Attorney General Janet Mills in a misleading letter to the Portland Press Herald in February said, “DNA evidence has been exhaustively analyzed at Mr. Dechaine’s request, but the results do not help him."
No court reviewing this case has acknowledged that the state's routine destruction of biological evidence is the reason Dechaine's post-conviction review process is spinning in circles. His chances for freedom, if he is innocent, have been hanging on the thumbnail clipping of a 12-year-old girl and a few threads from her shirt.
The unfolding of this case over the past 28 years has highlighted a number of ways convictions can be uncertain, and has prompted several changes to Maine law to help counteract that uncertainty: confessions must now to be recorded, for one example.
Our legislators should take another look at the post-conviction review statute and add provisions recommended by the Innocence Project: Courts should be allowed to vacate convictions or grant a new trial — where all the evidence can be heard — when DNA evidence of a case has been destroyed.
(NOTE TO READERS: The following comments by Trial and Error are intended to clarify several points in the Courier-Gazette editorial above.)
1) While the number of DNA-based exonerations in America is currently 342, the number of exonerations for all reasons (witness mis-identification of perpetrator; false confessions; misconduct by law enforcement; DNA; et al.) is currently 1855. Maine has two of these, but they are for very small misdemeanor convictions, e.g., a dock fight between two lobstermen. Maine remains the only state in the union without a felony exoneration.
2) The editorial passes along the Maine Supreme Court's significant failure to understand that "touch-DNA" (from the scrapings of the victim's clothing) test results could not rule out Dennis because the scarf used to strangle the victim belonged to Dennis and had been taken from his truck and had been in contact with the victim's other articles of clothing both during the crime and while kept as evidence.
3) The State's "routine cleaning" that destroyed crime scene evidence took place only weeks after Dennis filed his 1992 motion for a retrial.)