Sarah Cherry would have celebrated her 34th birthday on May 5. Most likely she would have shared the milestone with a husband and a child or two, maybe at a cookout.
But Sarah Cherry was kidnapped, tortured, stabbed, then strangled in the woods of Bowdoin on July 6, 1988, by Dennis Dechaine. That is the opinion of a jury of his peers delivered in Knox County Superior Court in March 1989.
I covered the trial for the Bangor Daily News and would have voted to send Dechaine to Maine State Prison where he has been kept for the past 22 years.
The evidence was overwhelming.
The disappearance of the 12-year-old babysitter set off a massive search by local residents and volunteers from various armed services.
While police were searching, they found a wandering Dechaine in the Bowdoin woods. He claimed that he had been fishing but lost his way in the woods. He lied about his address and occupation. He said he lost the keys to his truck. The keys were later found in the back of a police car, where Dechaine had tried to hide them.
When they found Cherry’s body two days later, they found Dechaine’s truck 450 feet away.
When police searched the Bowdoin home where Cherry was abducted, they found Dechaine’s notebook and his car repair bill in the driveway. Did the struggling baby sitter kick the notebook out the door, sealing the fate of her abductor and murderer?
When they examined the rope that bound the girl’s wrists, it matched the rope in Dechaine’s truck. The scarf used to strangle her came from Dechaine’s truck.
That alone would have been enough for most juries in most murder cases.
There was more.
But when police arrived at the Dechaine home, the suspect said words to the effect that ‘it must have been somebody else inside me.” He told his wife, “I did something bad.” Jail guards said that Dechaine said, “I’m the one who killed that girl.” According to police, Dechaine said, “I didn’t think it actually happened until I saw her face on the news.”
Police distorted innocent remarks, Dechaine supporters argue.
At trial, he told prosecutor Eric Wright that he left the woods that day because, “We were losing the light.”
“We?” Asked Wright.
There were persistent reports that Dechaine made further incriminating statements to his original attorney, George Carleton of Bath. When the state tried to interview Carleton is his dying days, the Dechaine defense fought the effort furiously, until Carleton’s death.
Why was Dechaine in the woods that day? He told police he went there to shoot methamphetamine into his veins. He was found with scratches on his arms and a muddy handprint on his back.
A dispassionate observer might decide that the evidence was overwhelming.
But the Dechaine conviction has generated 22 years of activity by his ardent support group Trial and Error which has collected more than $200,000, held rallies, applauded Dechaine’s court appearances and even changed state law. One effort to pass a House resolution for a new trial failed but only by a vote of 85-51. A successful law change will force still another hearing in the fall to determine if DNA science, unavailable in 1989, could force a new trial or turn Dechaine loose. Famed attorney F. Lee Bailey has taken an interest in the case.
A television opinion poll determined that 63 percent of respondents considered Dechaine innocent.
The only basis for this activity that I can find is that Dechaine is a clean-cut college graduate with no criminal record, hardly the usual profile of a Maine murderer. Cherry’s grandmother, Peg Cherry of Lisbon Falls, told the Maine Sunday Telegram last week, “He thought he was going to hoodwink everyone. Here is this pretty boy, really clean-cut and he wants you to believe there’s no way he could do it. Well, looks can be deceiving.”
The argument presented by Dechaine and his latest attorney Steven Peterson is that someone else, some monster kidnapped, tortured stabbed and murdered Cherry, then framed Dechaine.
Did the monster decide ahead of time to kill Cherry and frame Dechaine, Or did it just happen, unplanned?
If the monster decided ahead of time that he (or she) had a powerful motive of hatred against the farmer, did he take the rope from the truck, then go kidnap the first innocent young girl he saw, kill her and leave her in the woods? How did he get Dechaine to drive to the murder site, shoot his drugs then wander around the woods?
Or did the monster already kill Cherry, then watch as the innocent Dechaine drove up 450 feet away, parked his truck, then wandered off in the woods? Then the monster took the rope and scarf from Dechaine’s locked truck, tied up the girl, killed her and fled the scene. The monster would have to take Dechaine’s notebook back to the kidnap scene, where a few law enforcement officers might be expected, and throw it in the driveway.
The efforts of Trial and Error are curiously without the cooperation of Dechaine’s former wife, who divorced the convicted murderer shortly after the trial.
After covering the courthouse for 30 years, I do not have a drop of sympathy for Dennis Dechaine, convicted murderer. I save mine for Sarah Cherry, tortured and murdered in the woods at age 12.