Dechaine gains ally in trial bid

Posted April 08, 2009, at 10:01 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:49 a.m.

WARREN, Maine — Famed defense attorney F. Lee Bailey has agreed to serve as a consultant on convicted child murderer Dennis Dechaine’s petition for a new trial.

Bailey spoke with Dechaine for about an hour Wednesday afternoon at the Maine State Prison in Warren

“It was very productive,” said Dechaine’s defense attorney Steve Peterson of Rockport after the meeting. “F. Lee Bailey is happy to consult with us.”

Dechaine, 50, is serving a life sentence for the 1988 kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry in Bowdoin. He has maintained his innocence, however, and last August petitioned for a new trial based on DNA evidence not available at the time of his trial.

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On July 6, 1988, Cherry disappeared from a home where she was babysitting. Her body was found days later. She had been raped with sticks, strangled with a scarf and stabbed repeatedly.

Three years ago, an independent panel found no misconduct by prosecutors or investigators in its review of the case. But Peterson says that improvements in DNA science could now provide a breakthrough for Dechaine.

“We want the same items tested again with new technology,” Peterson said Wednesday.

DNA technology was in its infancy when Dechaine stood trial. Later tests of Cherry’s fingernail clippings showed the presence of the DNA of a man other than Dechaine.

After meeting with Bailey, Peterson and attorney John Nale of Waterville, Dechaine looked upbeat as he left the small visitor’s room. He and Bailey both declined to speak to the press.

“Dennis is a very bright guy. He understands very well what’s going on,” Peterson said.

Though Bailey most likely won’t be part of any new courtroom proceedings, the nonprofit Innocence Project would help provide “other counsel,” Peterson said. That organization, which has worked for years with Dechaine’s defense team, is based at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York and was created to han-dle cases where post-conviction DNA testing of evidence could yield conclusive proof of innocence.

Bailey, 75, has worked on a number of high-profile cases, including the trials of Sam Sheppard, Patty Hearst and O.J. Simpson — at whose trial DNA testing played a crucial role. But he’s also run afoul of the law. In 2000, he was sent to prison for contempt after he refused to turn over profits from stock owned by a drug dealer he represented. Bailey was later disbarred in Florida and Massachusetts for his conduct related to that case.

Bailey will take no consulting fees for his work with Dechaine, Peterson said, and heard about the Maine case because he serves on a prison reform panel with Nale.

Bailey wanted to be a consultant in part because of “the cloud that hangs over this case, the feeling by the public that Dennis wasn’t given a fair trial,” Peterson said.

The state’s case was built on evidence that included Dechaine’s wandering out of woods near where Cherry’s body eventually was found. A car repair bill bearing his name was found outside the home where Cherry disappeared and rope used to bind her matched rope from his truck and barn. Dechaine told police he had been fishing, but later admitted he had been injecting speed, or methamphetamine.

An active, organized group has been pressing for Dechaine’s case to be reopened. One member of the pro-Dechaine group Trial & Error, William Bunting of Whitefield, was at the prison Wednesday wearing a pin with Dechaine’s picture on it.

“I’m feeling very encouraged,” Bunting said. “F. Lee Bailey is certainly a very knowledgeable person, and he seems more successful than we are at getting attention.”

Bunting said that the case had always troubled him, and after he read the book “Human Sacrifice,” by James Moore, he was convinced that Dechaine did not get a fair trial.

“I’ve been meeting with Dennis for about two years,” Bunting said. “He’s an extraordinary individual.”

Peterson said he hoped to be ready for a hearing on his petition for a new trial later this summer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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