ROCKLAND — Bowdoinham farmer Dennis Dechaine, 40, has been behind prison bars since July 8, 1988, when he was arrested for the kidnapping, torture and murder of Bowdoin baby sitter Sarah Cherry, 12. Through a trial in Knox County, his conviction, life sentence and nine years in prison he has maintained his innocence, pointing the finger of blame at an alternative suspect.
On Friday, the Dechaine case will return to the Knox County courthouse, where his new attorneys will argue for a DNA sample to be taken from that suspect, Douglas Senecal of Bowdoinham. According to the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Department, Senecal has left the state and does not want to be bothered with the Dechaine case. Senecal has denied any involvement with the murder.
The highly publicized 1989 trial did not convince everyone of Dechaine’s guilt.
Many people believed that the clean-cut college graduate Dechaine could not commit such a heinous crime. A support group called Trial and Error was formed. Members dressed in Trial and Error T-shirts appeared during Dechaine’s numerous appeal hearings to offer moral support. Many members were from the Madawaska area where Dechaine grew up.
At the Friday hearing, Dechaine will be represented by his new lawyers, Gene R. Libby and Michael Donlan of Portland, who have charged previous attorneys George Carlton and Thomas Connolly with incompetence, in an effort to obtain a new trial.
In a twist worthy of a Hollywood script, attorney Carlton of Bath was ordered to be deposed after he was incapacitated by a stroke which left him able to communicate only with winks, blinks and eye movement. Over defense objections, Justice Donald H. Marden ordered depositions from Carlton about incriminating statements made by Dechaine shortly after his arrest. Information about the status of the Carlton deposition has been impounded by the court.
Portland attorney Thomas Connolly became co-counsel with Carlton and represented Dechaine during the 1989 trial. In a 1995 motion to obtain a new trial, Dechaine said Connolly and Carlton failed to produce vital DNA evidence and “failed to act in a minimally competent manner.”
It was that motion that dissolved the traditional attorney-client confidentiality and allowed Carlton to discuss the case. Dechaine attorneys fought unsuccessfully against the Carlton deposition. “I am concerned with discovery [testimony] from a quadriplegic who cannot speak and [can] communicate only with nods, blinking and winking,” argued attorney Donlan.
Assistant Attorney General William Stokes said the effort to get a new trial based on attorney incompetence was “transparent and cynical, a fraud and a hoax.” He questioned why the defense would argue against obtaining any information in the case, if Dechaine was innocent.
Dechaine’s effort at freedom is hanging by a fingernail.
During the trial, blood traces in fingernail clippings taken from the dead girl were examined and could not be positively linked to Dechaine. Defense attorneys are using this fact as an argument to get a saliva sample from Senecal, who had a vague connection to the Cherry family, according to evidence presented by the defense during the trial.
“Should [Dechaine] demonstrate that Mr. Senecal’s DNA profile is present in the victim’s fingernail clipping it would raise significant doubt about the state’s theory of prosecution. Such a result would constitute scientific proof that Mr. Senecal had been in close contact with the deceased in the last few hours of her life, a factual hypothesis neither entertained by the state nor considered by the jury. Proof to that effect would strongly suggest that Mr. Senecal, not [Dechaine] was responsible for the murder,” attorney Libby argued in his motion, now before the court.
Sagadahoc County Sheriff Mark Westrum, other police officers and jail employees all testified during the trial that Dechaine made numerous incriminating statements shortly after his arrest. Dechaine’s notebook was found in the driveway of the home from which Cherry was abducted.