Judge rejects Dechaine’s time-of-death argument

Posted Aug. 19, 2011, at 4:04 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 19, 2011, at 5:56 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Convicted murderer Dennis Dechaine, who has been trying to prove his innocence for more than 22 years, was dealt another setback Friday when a judge ruled against his attempt to introduce two expert witnesses who Dechaine’s attorney said believe he could not have been the killer.

Defense attorney Steve Peterson of Rockport said he had two witnesses ready to say that based on body decomposition evidence from the 1989 trial, Dechaine was in police custody at the time 12-year-old Sarah Cherry died.

“It would have shown that he is absolutely innocent and that he deserves a new trial,” said Peterson. “[The court’s order] basically slams the door on us being able to bring in any time-of-death evidence.”

Superior Court Justice Carl O. Bradford, in a decision dated Wednesday, ruled that Dechaine’s request was outside the scope of a pending motion for a retrial. That motion is based on new expert testimony that DNA material from at least two people, matching the profile of Cherry as well as someone other than Dechaine, was found under Cherry’s fingernails. Bradford, who has presided over Dechaine’s legal proceedings since the original murder trial, said Maine has never recognized a freestanding claim of actual innocence as grounds for postconviction relief. By introducing the time-of-death testimony, Dechaine would be arguing for his innocence as opposed to seeking a new trial, as he is regarding the DNA evidence.

“To establish actual innocence [according to Maine law] the defendant may introduce ‘all the other evidence in the case, old and new,’” wrote Bradford. “This court has already interpreted this language to restrict the new evidence parties may offer to that which is relevant to the DNA testing.”

Peterson said he was hoping Bradford would follow suit with several other states where new evidence routinely is admitted if it has potential to prove a person’s innocence.

“If someone has actual evidence of his innocence he should be able to introduce that evidence,” said Peterson. “It’s a doctrine that’s been recognized in a number of states around the country.”

Bradford referenced that argument in his decision but pointed out that other states, including Maine, do not follow that doctrine. A coroner testified at Dechaine’s trial that the victim’s body decomposition indicated that Dechaine could have been the killer. Prosecutors have maintained that determining time of death is not an exact science.

In late July, Bradford ruled that the mystery DNA from beneath Cherry’s thumbnails be compared to a database of 21,000 criminals in Maine. Peterson argues that the results could reveal another suspect while prosecutors have called the comparisons “a wild goose chase.” Peterson said further DNA tests on other evidence in the case, such as scrapings from the victim’s clothing, is under way.

Dechaine, 53, is serving a life sentence in Maine State Prison in Warren for Cherry’s sexual assault, torture and murder.

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