ROCKLAND — “It seems to me that the state would want to know whose DNA was under Sarah Cherry’s fingernails,” attorney Gene R. Libby argued in Knox County Superior Court on Friday, during the latest effort by convicted murderer Dennis Dechaine, 40, to get a new trial.
The request was taken under advisement by Justice Donald Marden and no decision was made Friday.
Dechaine attended Friday’s hearing but he did not speak.
Dechaine was convicted in 1989 of the kidnapping, torture and murder of Cherry, a 12-year-old baby sitter abducted from a Bowdoin home in July 1988. He is serving a life sentence at Maine State Prison.
Years after the conviction, Dechaine’s attorneys had the victim’s fingernail clippings examined under new and sophisticated DNA testing. The results, they say, show the DNA signature tracings of two unknown people. Neither the victim’s nor Dechaine’s DNA was found in the clipping, attorneys reported.
On Friday, Dechaine’s attorney asked the court to obtain a DNA sample from Douglas Senecal of Bowdoin, who attorneys have identified as an alternative suspect in the slaying.
Senecal’s stepdaughter was supposed to baby sit in the Bowdoin home from which Cherry was kidnapped, before a last-minute change in plans. Ralph Jones, the victim’s stepfather, testified at a previous hearing that he heard Senecal’s voice coming from the woods near the house on the day the girl was kidnapped.
Assistant Attorney General William Stokes objected to the DNA testing of Senecal, who has left the state. “We are quite satisfied that we know who the murderer of Sarah Cherry is,” Stokes said.
Any evidence from the victim’s fingernails was compromised when defense attorney Thomas Connolly took them from the courtroom and held onto them for 13 months, he said.
The state had to hold a court hearing to regain the fingernail evidence from Connolly, who obtained the evidence in a clerical mistake, Stokes said.
“The chain of evidence has been destroyed. We don’t know what he [Connolly] did with them, where he kept them. We are quite skeptical what happened to those clippings. Can you imagine what Connolly would say if the state ever handled evidence like that? We would not have a snowball’s chance of ever getting that evidence admitted and would face disciplinary action,” Stokes said.
The evidence would easily be contaminated by sweat or other bodily fluid, and “their evidentiary value has sunk to nothingness,” Stokes said.
Senecal’s role in the slaying was explored during Dechaine’s trial, Stokes said. Senecal had an alibi for the time of the abduction and slaying, while Dechaine was spotted coming out of the woods where the girl was later found.
Libby argued that Senecal should be returned to Maine and forced to provide a saliva sample for a DNA test. “The DNA on those fingernails could be from her killer. It was not from Dennis Dechaine,” Libby said.
The state’s anger against Connolly because of his actions with the fingernail clippings should not reflect on Dechaine’s rights, Libby said. He asked Justice Marden to order Senecal to provide a DNA sample to “establish the identity of the real killer, to see that justice is done and to make sure that a man has not been wrongfully convicted.”
Dechaine’s attorneys also filed a motion for a new trial on the basis of incompetent counsel by Connolly and Bath Attorney George Carlton. Justice Marden said he would take both motions under advisement.
Stokes said the state will never be able to question Carlton on the Dechaine case. Carlton, who served as co-counsel with Connolly during the trial, has suffered a debilitating stroke and will never be able to answer questions under oath, Stokes said.