Is new DNA information enough for ‘reasonable doubt’ in Dechaine case?

Posted Oct. 12, 2012, at 7:22 p.m.
Convicted murderer Dennis Dechaine is interviewed at the Maine State Prison in Warren, Maine, April 6, 2005.
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Convicted murderer Dennis Dechaine is interviewed at the Maine State Prison in Warren, Maine, April 6, 2005.

New information casts doubts on Dennis Dechaine’s role in the death of Sarah Cherry, and confirms the alternative suspect theory, an analyst hired to interpret DNA data from a 24-year-old murder case says.

Dr. Greg Hampikian, a DNA analyst from Idaho hired by Dechaine’s attorney, said Friday that his method of interpreting the results excludes Dechaine as a suspect because of the absence of a key marker present in Dechaine’s biological profile.

“It is clear from the ligature results that more than one male contributed DNA to the scarf; in fact there are at least three male contributors based on the result,” wrote Hampikian in a report to attorney Steven Peterson.

DNA lab Orchid Cellmark in Texas reported that DNA found on a scarf used to strangle 12-year-old Cherry included a mixture of samples from at least three different men. Cellmark states in its report provided by Peterson that Dechaine could not be excluded as a suspect. The testing was paid for by an organization called the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate people it believes are wrongly convicted.

Hampikian said Cellmark’s data show that a marker along Dechaine’s Y chromosome is missing from material scraped from the scarf. While Cellmark attributes that to an incomplete sample that may have degraded over the years, Hampikian said that if Dechaine’s DNA were on the evidence, the marker in question would be present.

“They used a different interpretation method of the Y chromosome than the method I would have used,” said Hampikian. “The method they use tends to include many more people as potential contributors. Even if we use their method, the alternate suspect is a much better match to the ligature that was used in murder.”

Hampikian said the DNA sample found on the scarf was of higher quality than that found on the shirt and bra, and the fact that the scarf was used in the crime elevates the significance of the DNA found on it.

But Deputy Attorney General William Stokes said Cellmark’s data proves what he has believed for decades: that Dechaine is guilty of murdering Sarah Cherry, who was 12 years old in 1988 when she was kidnapped, tortured and left dead in a wooded area of Bowdoin. Dechaine is serving a life sentence at Maine State Prison in Warren.

“According to Orchid Cellmark’s report, Dennis Dechaine is potentially present on all of this evidence,” said Stokes. “It only confirms my opinion of the case. In terms of the alternative suspect, I don’t know what that’s about.”

Peterson said Thursday that the match to an alternative suspect is not 100 percent conclusive, but that the DNA provides a close match to a person whose name has come up over the years as a possible suspect. Peterson would not identify the suspect because of a court order barring him from doing so.

Orchid Cellmark, in its report, said that in regard to DNA found on the scarf as well as a shirt and bra worn by Cherry, Dechaine cannot be excluded as a suspect.

Hampikian said the alternative suspect’s DNA was found at all of the areas where any DNA was found.

“Maybe we lost the piece from Dennis at that one [Y chromosome] site but the fact of the matter is that there’s an alternative suspect,” said Hampikian. “He’s there at every site and so are thousands of other people from Maine. Thousands of men in Maine are potential contributors to this sample, but Dennis Dechaine is not one of them.”

Peterson said he is awaiting further analysis of the evidence before calling for a conference with the court about how to proceed.

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