Maine supreme court rejects DNA-based appeal in Bowdoin murder; possible implications for Dennis Dechaine
BOWDOIN, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has rejected a motion for a new trial in a decade-old murder case in a decision that legal experts said could set precedent for future appeals that are based on DNA evidence.
Olland Reese, who was convicted of murdering 16-year-old Cody Green of Brunswick in 2003, is serving a 47-year sentence in Maine State Prison. In October of last year, Reese’s attempts to win a new trial reached the Maine supreme court, which announced its decision Jan. 17. Reese, represented by Camden-based attorney Christopher K. MacLean, argued for a new trial based on DNA evidence in the case, specifically skin cells found on a length of duct tape that was used to bind Green’s wrists during the May 2002 slaying in the Sagadahoc County town of Bowdoin.
At the center of the appeal was prior analysis that showed that the DNA came from a male other than Reese, which Reese’s defense attorney contends must have come from the perpetrator of the crime. However, in a decision written by Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, the court unanimously ruled that there were other plausible sources for the DNA, including detectives at the crime scene and forensic investigators who later handled the evidence. Moreover, the court said the DNA evidence was unlikely to change the verdict because it didn’t counter the “voluminous evidence that implicated Reese in the murder.”
In 2006, the Legislature enacted a law involving appeals of criminal cases that involve new DNA evidence. It requires defendants to prove in court that the new DNA evidence only could have come from the perpetrator of the crime and that the DNA evidence must be strong enough to outweigh other evidence in the case.
According to the court’s decision, Green last was seen by a taxi driver who dropped her off at Reese’s home while his mother was away and his girlfriend, who was a close friend of Green’s, was working. The girlfriend returned to the home to find a hatchet normally kept inside was outside on a porch, the interior of the house had been cleaned, a striped sheet that had been on the living room futon was missing, and that “Reese was anxious to leave the house as soon as she arrived,” according to the decision.
The investigation revealed the presence of Green’s blood on the futon and on a hallway wall. Her DNA was found on the blunt end of the hatchet.
A month after she disappeared, Green’s body was found about 125 yards behind Reese’s mother’s house, wrapped in the missing striped sheet, with her wrists bound in duct tape. Her death was found to have been caused by blunt force trauma to the head, which the prosecution contended was caused by the hatchet.
Reese’s appeal centered on the duct tape. The DNA in question was found on the smooth side of the duct tape, on the outer, exposed layer that bound Green’s wrists. A latent hand print was found on the same portion of tape, but on the sticky side. Reese and an alternative suspect cited by the defense were excluded as sources of the handprint, which prosecutors argued could have been Green’s. Her body was too decomposed for comparison.
Later analysis of the DNA showed that some of it came from a female latent print analyst in the Maine State Police Crime Lab. The traces of male DNA could have come from a fingerprint brush the analyst used that had been used in other cases, according to last week’s ruling. Procedures at the Maine State Police Crime Lab since have been altered so that similar contaminations no longer can occur.
According to Assistant Attorney General Donald W. Macomber, who represented the state before the supreme court, the Reese decision marks the third time that the 2006 law has been tested in court. Macomber said the court’s ruling shows that it will maintain high standards when considering appeals for retrials based on DNA evidence, which he said is what the law intends.
“The Legislature, when crafting the statute, made it so if they’re going to be disturbing a conviction that has already been upheld by the Maine supreme court, they don’t want to have those things disturbed by what they see as insignificant evidence,” said Macomber. “To me, what is precedent-setting is that it clarifies the law. … They clarified that they can look at all of the evidence from the original trial and have to weigh the importance of the new evidence against all the other evidence.”
MacLean, who represented Reese during the latest appeal, could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
When the Legislature was considering the law, many tied it to the case of Dennis Dechaine, who is serving a life sentence for the 1988 kidnapping, murder and torture of 11-year-old Sarah Cherry, which coincidentally also happened in Bowdoin. Dechaine is seeking a new trial based on DNA evidence that has been unveiled in recent years.
Among the DNA testing results were the discovery of skin cells on Cherry’s clothing from a male other than Dechaine, though Dechaine’s attorney Stephen Peterson of Rockland has said the results were not 100 percent conclusive. In the past, investigators have found male DNA that was not Dechaine’s under Cherry’s fingernails.
Peterson said Wednesday that DNA testing in the case is continuing. He said Dechaine’s case has some similarities with the Reese case, but also some key differences. Among them is that DNA testing through the years reportedly has excluded numerous people, including most of the investigators on the case.
Peterson said the evidence against Reese was much stronger than the evidence against Dechaine, though prosecutors and investigators who were involved in the Dechaine case have said repeatedly that the circumstantial evidence against Dechaine leaves little doubt of his guilt.
Another major difference is that during the Dechaine trial, DNA evidence was not introduced, nor was an alternative suspect theory.
“I think the analysis that the supreme court did was a very good one and very probative,” said Peterson. “I think these analyses are going to have to be done on a case-by-case basis. We asked for DNA testing prior to trial and were denied the chance to do that. … The fact is that the DNA we found does not match Dechaine. When you take that into account, it’s much easier for a jury to conclude that he might not have done it.”
Peterson said he will represent Dechaine on Thursday in a Superior Court conference hearing to determine how to proceed with that case.