Judge: DNA comparisons permissible in Dechaine murder case

Posted July 29, 2011, at 10:22 a.m.
Last modified July 29, 2011, at 4:42 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A judge on Friday ruled that a DNA sample from a young murder victim’s fingernail can be compared against a database of 21,000 criminals in Maine, a move sought by Dennis Dechaine’s defense lawyers but described by prosecutors as potentially leading to a “wild goose chase.”

Superior Court Justice Carl Bradford ruled during a preliminary hearing in Dechaine’s continuing effort to get a new trial in the 1988 death of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry in Bowdoin. Dechaine, now 53, was convicted in 1989 and is serving a life sentence for Cherry’s kidnapping, sexual abuse and murder. Authorities say Cherry was randomly targeted.

Bradford, who presided over Dechaine’s trial, declined Friday to recuse himself from the proceedings but left the matter open to be decided later.

Defense lawyer Steve Peterson told the judge that he ought to remove himself to avoid being put in the position of having to strike down his previous rulings tied to DNA evidence.

“It is very difficult for this court to sit objectively and decide whether it’s going to overturn itself on a decision from 22 years ago,” said Peterson, who described the latest motions in the case as “Dechaine’s last and best chance of getting a new trial.”

The DNA from the fingernail showed material from at least two people, matching the profile of Cherry as well as someone other than Dechaine, a state DNA expert testified Friday. At the time of the crime, only a few labs were capable of examining samples and the DNA was not tested.

Catherine MacMillan from the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory in Augusta testified that even using the latest technology, the sample was too degraded to be of use for identification. Half of the genetic material necessary to establish positive ID was missing, she said.

Nonetheless, MacMillan said she was able to get nine “hits” from 4,000 samples that were in the state criminal DNA database in 2004 after she lowered the generally accepted identification standards due to the poor quality of the sample. She said she was later able to exclude all nine samples belonging to eight people and one unknown sample.

A defense DNA expert disagreed about the value of the tests, and the judge ordered the sample to be compared again with the current larger state database. The names from any matches will be turned over to the judge, who’ll assess whether they should be turned over to the defense.

Deputy Attorney General Bill Stokes urged the judge not to open the door to a “wild goose chase” and said no court had ever allowed the type of testing used in this case.

But the judge said he was open to seeing what evidence, if any, is produced.

“There’s always a first for everything Mr. Stokes,” the judge replied. “The motion is granted.”

The judge didn’t rule on a request by the defense to introduce additional evidence including testimony from experts establishing the time of Cherry’s death. Peterson said his own experts, including high-profile coroner Cyril Wecht, contend Dechaine was in custody when Cherry died.

Stokes said the science that’s used to establish time of death isn’t as precise as the defense suggests, and said the medical examiner said just that at the original trial.

“This is not new evidence,” Stokes said. “This is the defense finding an expert who’ll say what they want them to say, and presenting it as new evidence.”

After the hearing, the Rev. Robert Dorr, a friend of the Cherry family, said Dechaine fits the profile of a sociopath who continues to torment the Cherry family. “It’s continued harassment of the Cherry family from Dennis Dechaine from the cell he occupies,” Dorr said.

 

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