PORTLAND, Maine — A two-day hearing about new DNA analysis from the 1988 murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry concluded Friday amid witness arguments that the evidence isn’t compelling enough to trigger a new trial. Even Dennis Dechaine, who is serving a life sentence for the crime, said Friday that he won’t be surprised if Justice Carl O. Bradford rules against him.
“I think he made up his mind about this case in 1988 and nothing will change it,” said Dechaine, who has maintained his innocence.
Dechaine, a Bowdoinham farmer, was convicted in 1989 of murdering Cherry. Since then, he and a group of supporters called Trial and Error have repeatedly sought a new trial, based on a variety of reasons. The new DNA analysis introduced Thursday is the most recent.
Because he was the judge at the 1989 murder trial, Bradford, who is now retired, retains jurisdiction over the case.
Deputy Attorney General Bill Stokes spent Friday morning chipping away at the notion that new DNA analysis in the 25-year-old case creates reasonable doubt about Dechaine’s guilt.
Dechaine’s defense attorney, Steven Peterson, has contended that the DNA evidence, which was produced by new analysis during the past few years, points to an alternative suspect and in some cases excludes Dechaine as a suspect.
Much of Stokes’ questioning Friday morning of DNA expert Dr. Greg Hampikian focused on the quality of the DNA samples and the likelihood that the DNA came from Cherry’s killer. The issue of how the DNA was transferred to Cherry’s clothing and fingernails is crucial to Dechaine’s bid for a new trial. Under a Maine law enacted in 2006, defendants relying on DNA evidence in their appeals must prove that the DNA could only have come from the perpetrator of the crime.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court set a precedent in January of this year when it ruled against defendant Olland Reese, who appealed his conviction in the 2002 murder of Cody Green of Brunswick based on DNA evidence. The court ruled that there were other plausible sources for DNA that showed up on duct tape used to bind Green’s wrists, including detectives and forensic investigators.
Hampikian said that as far as he can tell, detectives and forensic experts have handled the evidence in the Dechaine case correctly over the years but that doesn’t necessarily mean no contamination occurred.
“There’s always a concern when you have a case where it’s been 25 years since evidence collection,” said Hampikian. “The concerns are that I can’t be sure that the evidence was properly separated at all times.”
Much of the defense’s case is focused on biological matter that was found under Cherry’s thumbnail. The DNA there has been found to not include Dechaine’s but does include the DNA of another male. DNA from two males was found on Cherry’s shirt and a scarf that was used to strangle her. Neither Dechaine nor an alternative suspect can be excluded as the source of that DNA, though the match is far from 100 percent.
Hampikian said the very best DNA evidence available in the case statistically narrows the DNA donor to about 1 in 200, far short of the 1 in millions or billions that would constitute a match.
None of the DNA is of high enough quality to provide a 100 percent match to Dechaine or any other suspect.
Peterson is arguing that the DNA implicates an alternative suspect whose name has long been associated with the case. That person has been named in court but the Bangor Daily News is not publishing his name because he has never been charged in connection with the case. A private investigator hired by Dechaine’s supporters went to Florida and secretly acquired the man’s DNA from a coffee cup.
“If I was working with this case fresh and I started with the DNA, the possibility of more than one perpetrator is definitely there,” said Hampikian.
At one point Stokes’ questioning of Hampikian drew a rebuke from Bradford.
“We’re getting a little argumentative here,” said Bradford. “Let’s confine ourselves to questions and answers.”
Another witness called by Stokes, Carll Ladd, a supervisor for the DNA unit within the Connecticut Forensic Laboratory, testified that although he respects the firm that analyzed the DNA in this case, the methods used — namely scraping biological matter off the cloth — is problematic and could lead to faulty results because the method picks up such miniscule DNA traces that it could register even DNA present from someone breathing on the evidence.
“Scientifically, it’s difficult to ascertain to what degree the end results are relevant to the crime,” he said.
Ladd said there is no way to determine whether any DNA in the Dechaine case was present prior to the crime or in the case of the alternative suspect’s coffee cup, before he used it.
Peterson said Thursday that even though the evidence is not conclusive, it could lead to a different outcome for Dechaine in a new trial.
“This is the very kind of thing that a jury would consider to be reasonable doubt,” said Peterson to reporters outside the courthouse.
Bradford is expected to render his decision in writing in the coming days or weeks.
Members of Cherry’s family were present for Thursday and Friday’s hearings but declined to talk with the media.