DNA test results the focus on first day of Dechaine hearing

Apr. 18—ROCKLAND — A man requesting a new murder trial after 36 years in prison must convince a judge that new DNA testing results could result in a different verdict.

Dennis Dechaine, now 66, is serving a life sentence for the murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry, who disappeared from a Bowdoin home where she was babysitting on July 6, 1988, and was found dead two days later about three miles away. Police say she had been kidnapped, sexually assaulted and died of asphyxiation.

Dechaine has maintained his innocence the entire time, appearing in court for several unsuccessful appeals for a new trial. He was in Knox County Superior Court yet again Thursday for the first part of a two-day hearing with Superior Justice Bruce Mallonee, focused exclusively on DNA evidence and whether it merits a new trial.

His supporters rejoiced when a judge agreed to order new DNA testing in 2022. And when the results came back from a private lab in California, excluding Dechaine from 3 of 6 crime scene items, they said it bolstered Dechaine's claims of innocence.

But Dechaine wasn't ruled out from all the items, and the samples that were tested are hardly perfect. They're old, having been exposed to countless other sources of DNA and substances that could contaminate them. They were also taken before Maine courts used DNA testing and had proper collection policies.

His lawyers, John Nale and Stu Tisdale, spent Thursday morning arguing the new 2022 results were still reliable, even though they were based on flawed samples.

"But that doesn't mean it cannot be analyzed accurately?" asked Dechaine's attorney Stu Tisdale.

"It does not mean that," their expert Richard Staub said. "It means you're going to have a tough time with your analysis, and you better be good."

Prosecutors, who notably did not object to Dechaine's request for a hearing on the new DNA results last summer, argued Thursday morning they aren't compelling enough for a new trial.

"We think that the DNA evidence doesn't amount to a hill of beans," said Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber, one of three prosecutors in court Thursday. "It's much ado about nothing."

Macomber also alleged that Dechaine's lawyers were portraying the results inaccurately. Macomber cited several pieces of non-DNA evidence that prosecutors cited against Dechaine at trial, including alleged confessions Dechaine made to jail workers after he was arrested in 1988.

"The evidence shows that this man, sitting right here —" Macomber pointed several times at Dechaine, who was sitting with his lawyers to the left — "brutally, sexually assaulted 12-year-old Sarah Cherry and murdered her on July 6, 1988."

In his opening arguments, Nale focused heavily on DNA results from blood on Cherry's fingernails that he said excluded Dechaine and reveal the true killer.

Dechaine was excluded from that blood early on because he's blood Type O, and the blood under Cherry's nails was Type A. But because Cherry was Type A herself, the judge ruled against further DNA testing.

Nale said that the evidence now shows an unknown male profile in that blood who is not Dechaine. And that person's profile was a possible contributor on the scarf used to choke Cherry.

"The same DNA from the blood under the fingernails is now the same DNA on the scarf that was the murder weapon," Nale said.

Macomber said these findings weren't that conclusive. The profiles picked up on the scarf were too weak to say this with any certainty.

The most recent round of analysis was done by a lab in California called SERI, which prosecutors and the defense both agreed to use for the six items.

SERI director Gary Harmor said Thursday he was in charge of testing the nail blood. He said the analysis used to find the scarf finding was reached using a different system than theirs.

He didn't discount the results, but didn't back them up either.

"Can you say definitively that that same person left the DNA under the nail and the scarf?" Macomber asked him.

"No. There's an association but it's not definitive," said Harmor.

Staub, who analyzed some of the crime scene items for another of Dechaine's DNA-related appeals in 2012, was more emboldened by the Cybergenetics findings 10 years later.

Staub oversaw a genetics testing lab and a crime scene investigation unit for a police department in Texas.

"It's like solving a problem every time you do a different DNA case," said Staub. "This case had been eating at me for 10 years, like, what the heck is going on here? Because there's somebody sitting in prison, because it hasn't been looked at carefully."

This story will be updated.