Trial and Error

The Outcry for Justice in the Dennis Dechaine Case

Questionable State Actions and Official Misconduct

The list below concerns the case of Dennis Dechaine, convicted in 1989 for the brutal murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry. Based on police reports, documents in the AG's previously concealed "confidential file" and the conclusions of two eminent forensic pathologists who have examined the medical examiner’s report, it can be shown that the real killer staged the crime scene with items lifted from Dechaine’s unoccupied truck.  Police decided immediately and erroneously, based on that evidence, that Dechaine was guilty, and prosecutors committed numerous improper acts—before, during, and since the trial—to achieve and defend Dechaine’s conviction.

While one will likely never know exactly all that happened, one can surmise that what began as investigatory ineptitude by law enforcement turned first into misguided attempts to hold together a questionable case against the wrong man and then, slowly, into what can only be called a willful cover-up.  It is difficult, therefore, to say just which examples from the list below are of ineptitude, which of prosecutorial passion, and which of the corrupt fear of being found out.  Here, from nearly three decades, are the many moments at which the prosecution of Dennis Dechaine appears to have lost its way, either legally or morally.  The reader can decide in each case by how much, but in the aggregate it appears to be a history of official misconduct.

Pre-trial Investigation – 1988

Dechaine’s request and offer to pay for crime scene DNA testing denied.  Despite the State’s having DNA samples from another case tested the same year, 1988, to prosecute another defendant, the State argued and Judge Carl O. Bradford agreed against allowing such testing.

The loss of fingerprints from abduction site and Dechaine’s own blood sample.  Fingerprints were lifted from the Henkel house, compared to Dechaine and the house occupants, found not to match, and—though possibly belonging to the real perpetrator—disappeared from the AG’s case files.  Also lost was the blood sample taken from Dennis at the time of the crime, which could have revealed what drug he had taken. 

Failure to investigate known pedophile’s trailer.  Despite discovering large and small barefoot prints leading to a trailer near the crime scene and where lived a pedophile, Jason Fickett, already under investigation by State Police Detective Alfred Hendsbee, the officer chose not even to knock on the door while the victim was still missing and not yet known to be dead.

Failure to prosecute for obstruction of justice. A case of molesting his stepdaughter, a stepsister of the victim, against the alternative suspect Douglas Senecal was pending when the stepdaughter was spirited away to California by Senecal and her mother to prevent her testifying against the mother’s husband, Senecal. The case was dismissed by Judge Carl Bradford on January 25, 1989, and no charges of obstruction of justice brought against either the mother or Senecal.

State allows civil suit against Dechaine while he’s still innocent, attaching his funds and hamstringing his defense against murder charge. A judge other than the trial judge allowed the victim’s family to cripple Dennis’s ability to mount a successful trial and appeals, including, for example, to pay for an outside forensic pathologist.

During the Trial – 1989

Prosecutor Deputy AG Eric Wright either lied or coached a witness to lie a number of times during and after the trial.  These instances included:

Statement to the jury that there was no alternative suspect.  In his summation rebuttal, and despite his having argued in chambers to persuade Judge Carl O. Bradford not to allow the alternative suspect, Douglas Senecal, to be called as a witness, Wright told the jurors “…there is no evidence, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, in this case of an alternative perpetrator.”

Obfuscation of the time of death.  Wright led the State’s medical examiner, Dr. Ronald Roy, through an already vague autopsy report which, by avoiding defining a science-based range for the time of death, misled the jury into believing that Dechaine could have committed the crime.  Roy has moved to Canada and refuses to talk about the case.

Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Westrum’s testimony.  Claiming to read from his investigator’s notes, Dep. Westrum testified that Dechaine confessed to him right after being arrested.  Only after the AG’s Dechaine case files were forced open by a 2003 act of the Legislature were Westrum’s notes found to have been altered by the deputy, changing a quoted protestation of innocence into a nonsensical confession.

State Police Det. Alfred Hendsbee’s testimony.  After telling the court he was testifying from his notes while describing Dechaine confessing guilt, nothing inculpatory was found when a 2004 suit made the notes public.  

Concealed evidence of nearby pedophile.  The prosecution concealed from the defense the fact that a known pedophile—Jason Fickett—lived near the crime scene, an individual they knew had already sexually abused another girl of the victim’s age (12). 

Concealed evidence regarding Dechaine’s truck.  The prosecution concealed from the defense the fact that state CSI technicians and the state police tracking dog had found no trace of the victim in Dechaine’s truck. 

Opposition to admission of exculpatory testimony from both defense’s and State’s own psychiatrists.  Using state law that admitted psychiatric evaluations indicating insanity but prohibited evaluations pointing to sanity, Wright opposed their admission as evidence, despite the report of defense expert Dr. Roger Ginn stating that the drugs used by Dechaine would not have turned a pacifist into a murderer.  Bradford ruled in favor of Wright’s opposition. 

Post-trial – 1992 – 2015

Destruction of DNA evidence by State.  On June 18, 1992, six weeks after Dechaine filed an appeal and without notifying either the defense or the court, Deputy AG Fernand LaRochelle ordered the incineration of all the State’s evidence not used at the trial, including the rape kit, untested bloody fingernails and unidentified hair found on the victim’s body.

Loss of written statement submitted by alternative suspect’s sister.  Just prior to the same appeal hearing in 1992, the State Police accepted a written statement from Sheila Appleton (now deceased), sister of the alternative suspect Douglas Senecal, and forwarded it to the AG’s Office, where it has now disappeared.  In response to a 2014 FOAA request seeking the document, Wright and Deputy AG William Stokes hypothesized that Appleton’s statement was a retraction of an accusation of her brother, an idea contradicted by Denise Brewer Whitmore, of Monmouth Maine, who recalls Appleton telling her in tears—an “excited utterance” exception to the hearsay exclusion—that her brother Douglas Senecal, when he was storing his belongings with Appleton and moving out of state to avoid police questioning, admitted to her that he killed the victim.

Accusation of witness.  At the 1992 appeal hearing, Wright alleged that witness Ralph Jones had never filed what Jones claimed was a July, 1988 report to the police about witnessing the alternative suspect Douglas Senecal possibly in the act of abducting the victim.  Documentation of Jones’s report to the police was found following the Legislature’s forcing open the AG’s case files in 2003.  Equally questionable was that the police did not investigate the lead Jones gave them.

DNA test evaluation suppressed by AG’s Office.  Following DNA tests conducted by Dr. David Bing of CRB Labs in Cambridge, MA in 1993, the prosecution commissioned a former FBI agent, Harold Deadman, to evaluate Dr. Bing and the test results.  When both were given a positive report, the AG’s Office did not disclose this report to the defense.

Wright misleads State Senator et al.  In September, 1994, Wright told his own AG, Mike Carpenter, a State Senator, a State Representative, Carol Waltman, and members of the Dechaine family that the State had a confession by Dechaine on videotape.  When the tapes became available in 2003, there was no confession on them.

AG Stephen Rowe’s panel whitewashes allegations of official misconduct.  In 2004, Rowe appointed three private Maine attorneys to investigate and report on five allegations of misconduct by the State in the Dechaine case.   The panel never interviewed anyone from the defense, and refused to make public any evidence to support their 2006 report that failed to find “any substantive merit” to the allegations.  A suit seeking such evidence by former ATF agent/author James Moore was denied by both the Superior Court and the Maine Supreme Court. A June, 2009 obituary of one of the panelists, Charles H. Abbott, stated that he died “after a four-year battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.”

Non-DNA evidence ruled inadmissible by Judge Bradford.  In a 2010 ruling diametrically opposite to that of another superior court judge, Thomas Warren, Bradford interpreted the state’s post-conviction DNA statute, which called for consideration of “all evidence in the case, old and new,” as directing him to rule against admitting evidence from two nationally renowned forensic pathologists, Drs. Cyril Wecht and Walter Hofman, that the victim was killed only after Dechaine had been in the custody of police.

Misinformation accepted and embedded in 2015 ruling against Dechaine by Maine Supreme Court.  Despite attempts by Dechaine’s advocates to clarify the question, the Maine Supreme Court’s July, 2015 ruling against Dechaine’s final Maine appeal found the possible presence of his DNA on the scarf used to strangle the victim as inculpatory despite the fact that the scarf was Dechaine’s and so of course carried his DNA.

Despite the outstanding conflict of interest inherent in his having ruled in 1989 against Dechaine’s pre-trial request for DNA testing, Judge Bradford, though now listed as “active retired,” has refused to step aside.  His rulings since the 1989 trial suggest a pattern of refusal to consider anything that might call into question the original verdict.

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