ROCKLAND, Maine — A convicted murderer got three months tacked onto his life sentence Tuesday after pleading no contest to taking morphine while in prison.
Dennis Dechaine, 54, was ready to go to trial on Tuesday and the jury was waiting in the wings of Knox County Superior Court when he had a change of heart and instead pleaded no contest.
Dechaine overdosed on morphine in April 2010 in what he said was a suicide attempt. He was then charged with trafficking drugs and unlawful possession of morphine by consumption. On Tuesday the trafficking charge was dropped and Superior Court Justice William Brodrick handed down a three-month sentence and $400 fine. The sentence will be served separately from his murder sentence, which Dechaine is currently contesting using DNA evidence.
In court Tuesday, Dechaine’s attorney Steven Peterson argued that any drug sentence should be entirely suspended. If Dechaine gets acquitted for the murder charge in a new trial, he would have already served time he didn’t need to; if not, he’s in for life anyway and another three months on a life sentence wouldn’t make a difference.
“It seems absurd,” Peterson said. “My client was punished for this [drug offense] in prison already. As I understand it, he spent several months in [solitary confinement].”
District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau argued for a six-month sentence and said Dechaine needed to be treated like any other prisoner who committed a drug crime.
Rushlau called Dechaine’s drug use recreational because there was no suicide note.
Peterson said that claim was bunk and that his client was depressed after he spent decades fighting his murder conviction. Dechaine had to be hospitalized after prison officials found him unconscious in his cell. There were no drugs found in the cell afterward. Dechaine was then put on a prison suicide watch.
“They don’t put people on suicide watch for recreational use,” Peterson said after the sentencing.
According to Rushlau, whether it was or wasn’t a suicide attempt would not have affected the sentence.
Dechaine was given a life sentence in 1989 for the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry of Bowdoin. He is seeking a new trial based on DNA from the victim’s fingernail clipping. Dechaine’s attorney says that fingernail has the DNA of an unknown male, which would have changed jurors’ minds at his 1989 trial.
Typically, this type of misdemeanor drug sentence would be tacked onto the end of a murder conviction, but because Dechaine is contesting that conviction Rushlau asked the justice to instead interrupt the murder sentence so Dechaine would serve his three-month drug charge now. Brodrick agreed.
Dechaine, wearing prison blues, showed no emotion as the sentence was handed down.
“He’s already in prison, so it’s purely academic,” Peterson said concerning when the three months would be served.