An attorney working on behalf of convicted murderer Dennis Dechaine said Thursday that a new round of DNA testing on evidence in the 24-year-old case points to an alternative suspect who has been identified before.
Rockport-based attorney Steven Peterson said Thursday evening that a court order prevents him from identifying who the new DNA data potentially incriminates, but that it represents a major breakthrough for Dechaine, who has proclaimed his innocence since 1989 when he was convicted of torturing and killing 12-year-old Sarah Cherry of Bowdoin in 1988. Dechaine is serving a life sentence at Maine State Prison in Warren.
Peterson said relatively new methods of DNA testing were used recently on a shirt and a bra worn by Cherry when she died, as well as a scarf that was used to strangle her. The DNA found on the scarf was discovered in skin cells that were extracted using a new method that involves scraping matter from cloth or other materials and testing it.
DNA found in skin cells on the scarf was found not to belong to Dechaine or Cherry and is consistent with basic characteristics of DNA from one of the alternative suspects in the case — though Peterson said the results are not 100 percent conclusive and that more testing likely will be necessary. In other words, the DNA can’t be linked to any single person for sure.
“One alternative suspect is not excluded,” he said.
DNA was found on the shirt and bra that is consistent with Dechaine’s DNA, though Peterson said that evidence also is not conclusive because it was too miniscule to provide a complete DNA profile. The testing was conducted by Orchid Cellmark in Texas and was paid for by an organization called the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate people it believes are wrongly convicted.
This is not the first time new DNA evidence has shown up in the case. In the past, investigators have found male DNA that was not Dechaine’s among the evidence.
Even if the new evidence is admitted into court and a new trial ensues, there also is evidence that police officers and prosecutors have said for years strongly incriminates Dechaine. That evidence includes the fact that Dechaine and his truck were both found near the murder scene on the day Cherry was murdered, that paperwork bearing Dechaine’s name was found in the driveway of the home where Cherry was baby-sitting and pieces of rope used to bind Cherry that were forensically matched to rope in Dechaine’s truck and barn. Dechaine also is alleged to have confessed to the crime during police interrogation shortly after the murder, though his supporters dispute that.
Peterson said Dechaine has been asking for DNA testing since before the trial 24 years ago, but that the technology was not widely used in those days. The attorney said he is awaiting further analysis of the new evidence and likely will request a conference with the court system to determine whether a new trial is warranted.