Boston Gobe

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

HOPE SHINES ON MURDER CONVICT ; PANEL WILL REVIEW MAINE GIRL'S SLAYING

Brian MacQuarrie Globe Staff

WARREN, Maine - Dennis Dechaine has been behind bars for 16 years, a former small-town farmer who could not bring himself to kill his own chickens, but was convicted of one of the most heinous murders in state history.  Since his arrest in the abduction, sexual torture, and murder of a 12-year-old girl, Dechaine and a growing support group have argued without success that he was framed by the real killer and wrongfully convicted by the state. Now, after years of failed appeals and rejected legal motions, Dechaine has been given a sliver of hope that his protests might finally bear fruit.

In a striking move for a state that has steadfastly defended its handling of the case, Maine Attorney General G. Steven Rowe has appointed a three-member panel to review the 1988 killing of Sarah Cherry for any evidence of misconduct by police or prosecutors.

The decision to reexamine the case has opened old wounds in a state that was stunned by the violent crime. To Mainers convinced of his guilt, Dechaine is a remorseless, socio pathic monster, deserving of the no-parole life sentence a judge handed him in 1989 to ensure "that you never have the opportunity to murder another little girl."

To his advocates, who include Trial & Error, a statewide group working to overturn Dechaine's conviction, he was wrongly accused of murder and railroaded by overzealous police and prosecutors.

The review panel will consider whether police falsely attributed incriminating statements to Dechaine, misled the jury about the time of Cherry's death, failed to share information with the defense about an alternative suspect, and inappropriately destroyed evidence.

Even if the review shows evidence of misconduct, its work will not change Dechaine's conviction. But the findings could provide momentum for the retrial Dechaine's defense team is hoping to obtain. Dechaine said the pending review has re energized him and rekindled his hope that he will someday walk free.

Even now, Dechaine, 47, speaks of his conviction with a combination of resignation and disbelief. "If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody," Dechaine, clad in a stiff denim shirt and loose blue jeans, said in an interview last week in a visiting room at the maximum-security Maine State Prison.

But the new review has enraged and dismayed the family and friends of Sarah Cherry, whose stabbed, strangled, and sexually abused body was found covered with sticks and leaves 3 miles from the home where she had been baby-sitting an 11-month-old baby.

The Rev. Robert Dorr of Waldoboro, a friend of the Cherry family who eulogized the victim, assailed Trial & Error as mis informed and unscrupulous.

"They have no sense of the pain they are causing and openly berate anyone who opposes them," Dorr said.

Trial & Error, Dorr said, has attempted "to hold Mr. Dechaine up as a victim of the family and the system. He is a victim of his own behavior. No one else's."

The Cherry family refused a request for an interview, but in a statement issued through Dorr, the family said they welcome the review.

"Maybe now the general public will hear some of what we heard in the trial," the statement said, "and will know that if this killer gets out of jail, another little girl will lose her life."

Rowe has given little indication that he believes that the panel will find evidence of wrongdoing by police and prosecutors. In a letter last month to the panel's members, a retired federal judge and two practicing lawyers, Rowe wrote, "I have no reason to believe that these allegations are true."

Rowe declined to respond to questions from the Globe about his decision to order the review.

However, Dechaine's supporters and Dorr believe that a 2002 book by a retired federal law- enforcement agent influenced Rowe's decision to appoint the panel. The book "Human Sacrifice" by James P. Moore of Brunswick, a former agent-in-charge for Maine and New Hampshire for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms contends that the evidence shows that Dechaine could not have committed the crime.

Among his arguments, Moore wrote that the victim's estimated time of death excludes Dechaine as the killer and that DNA in a blood sample found under Cherry's thumbnail does not match Dechaine's. "Being an old cop, people ask me, 'How can you do this?' Being an old cop, how can I not do it," Moore said of his efforts to overturn Dechaine's conviction.

The sheer horror of Cherry's killing gave police a reason to solve the case quickly, partly to calm residents' fears about a criminal on the loose who was capable of unfathomable cruelty. In Dechaine, police said, they had found their man.

The 31-year-old farmer's pickup truck was found parked 450 feet from Cherry's body. Rope from the truck apparently had been used to bind the girl. Dechaine's bandana had gagged the victim. And two documents bearing Dechaine's name had been discovered in the driveway of the house where Cherry was baby- sitting before she was killed.

Dechaine has insisted that the real killer used those items. The killer, he said, happened upon the unlocked pickup, used the rope and bandana in the crime, and placed the documents at the abduction scene to frame him.

Dechaine also contends that police tampered with his statements to them. In case records of police conversations with Dechaine, copies of which have been reviewed by the Globe, the suspect's statement, "How could I kill her?" has been scratched out and rewritten to read, "Why did I kill her?" This change by police was not made public until last year, when an order of the Maine Legislature opened previously closed evidence held by the attorney general in the case.

Authorities have never explained why the change was made, according to Trial & Error. But that statement is not the only place where Dechaine appears to make incriminating statements to police. According to a Sagadahoc County detective's notes, Dechaine also said, "I don't know whatever made me do that," and "Oh, my God, why did I do this?"

But Michaela Murphy, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor who is representing Dechaine, said in an interview that Dechaine never signed a police statement. She also said that Dechaine might have been affected by what she called "false confession phenomenon." In such cases, Murphy said, suspects who are overly deferential to authority and under the influence of intoxicants can appear to admit guilt.

Dechaine originally told police that he had gone fishing. He later admitted to having lied to police, and said that he had walked into the woods to inject himself with "street speed." During his trial, Dechaine insisted that he had committed no violent crime.

Friends and supporters recall Dechaine as a gentle man who had to send his chickens out for slaughter because he could not kill them himself.

A key component for Dechaine's supporters is time of death. At the trial, the Maine medical examiner estimated that Cherry had died 30 to 36 hours before he examined the victim's body at 2 p.m., July 8, 1988. The longest estimate, based on the onset of rigor mortis, would have put the time of death at 2 a.m., July 7. But according to police evidence, Dechaine emerged from the woods before 8:45 p.m., July 6, when a Bowdoin motorist stopped to pick up Dechaine, who had been walking, apparently lost, on a country road.

The time of the medical examiner's autopsy was not introduced at Dechaine's trial, Moore said, which prevented the jury from working backward and questioning the difference between the estimated time of death and Dechaine's confirmed whereabouts.

"I think it's physically impossible for him to have done it," Moore said of the murder. When he first began looking at the case in 1992, Moore said, "I was going to prove that all the criticisms [of law enforcement] were unfounded. It just didn't work out that way."

Trial & Error recently presented Governor John Baldacci with a letter, signed by 5,000 people, which demanded an independent investigation of the case. The Innocence Project, a Manhattan-based group that uses DNA testing to investigate possible wrongful convictions, has been working on Dechaine's behalf.

The Maine attorney general's office has refused to comment on the case or the pending review, which Murphy said will be delayed until a motion for a new trial has been considered. That motion will use the DNA evidence on the blood sample, which State Police tests have confirmed belong to a male who is not Dechaine.

If a judge can be convinced that the blood is related to the crime, Murphy said, a retrial that looks at all the evidence can be ordered. The state attorney general's office has pledged to fight any attempt to reopen the case, arguing that no connection exists between the DNA evidence and the crime.

"The pressure to solve this crime quickly was undeniable, and who can blame them?," he said.

To Dorr, however, the case continues to inflict pain on a family. "Just think," Dorr said, "of having a nightmare you can't wake up from for 16 years."

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at b-macquarrie@globe.com.

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