Maine attorney general discounts new DNA tests in Dennis Dechaine's 1988 murder conviction

Nov. 14—Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said Monday new DNA testing that failed to tie Dennis Dechaine to items used in the 1988 kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old babysitter Sarah Cherry does not override other evidence supporting his conviction.

Frey's office had argued against testing the items using new, more sensitive technology that can identify traces of DNA. And the statement issued Monday makes clear the state also will argue against a new trial based on the evidence, something Dechaine's attorney says he is preparing to file.

"The Attorney General's office has faith in the system that has provided Mr. Dechaine numerous opportunities to challenge his conviction and remains confident in the jury's verdict," Frey said in the written statement.

When asked by the Portland Press Herald about the new evidence earlier this month, a spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office said the office was reviewing the results but does not comment on pending litigation. It wasn't clear why Frey decided Monday to release a statement about the case.

Attempts to contact Cherry's family earlier this month were not successful.

Dechaine has spent 34 years in prison since his conviction in the murder. The Bowdoinham farmer with no criminal record became the sole suspect in Cherry's kidnapping on the afternoon of July 6, 1988, when a receipt and notebook with his name on them were found at the Bowdoin home where the girl was babysitting.

Her body was found two days later in the woods three miles away, close to where his truck had been parked when he was picked up by police the night of the abduction. She had been sexually tortured and strangled, her hands bound in yellow rope similar to rope found in Dechaine's truck.

Dechaine has always maintained his innocence, saying he was framed by the real perpetrator, who planted items from Dechaine's truck at the crime scenes while he was in the woods doing drugs.

In September 2021, Dechaine's lawyers filed a motion for additional DNA testing on the grounds that new, more-sensitive collection technology had become available, and Knox County Superior Court Justice Bruce Mallonee approved the motion in July despite the state's objections.

The tests, which were conducted at a lab chosen by the state, found partial male DNA profiles on several of the items from the crime scene.

Dechaine was definitively excluded from being the source of DNA found on three objects: the bra worn by Cherry, one of the sticks used to violate her and the bandana used to gag her.

"If this man did what they're saying he did, his DNA should be all over all of the evidence used in the commission of the crime," Dechaine attorney John Nale said during an interview about the results last month.

There was not enough DNA on three other objects — the scarf used to strangle her, her blood-stained T-shirt, and a second stick used in the sexual assault — to either exclude or match Dechaine as the source.

Nale said the legal team representing Dechaine was preparing a formal motion for a new trial based on the test results. Under Maine's DNA law, when a person convicted of a crime is excluded as the source of DNA on crime scene evidence, a new trial may be granted if certain thresholds are met.

Frey's statement provides a preview of the state's argument that the other evidence is still strong enough to support the conviction. Frey's statement did not address the finding that Dechaine's DNA was not on the three items, instead pointing out that the tests did not exclude him as a source of DNA on three other items.

"As prior courts have ruled, the DNA evidence in this case is only a small part of the substantial evidence against Mr. Dechaine and needs to be viewed in that context," Frey said. "That said, the results of the new DNA testing recently ordered by the Court show that Mr. Dechaine cannot be excluded from 3 out of the 6 items tested. This result does not conflict with our prior accounts or negate the significant other evidence against Mr. Dechaine."

The new DNA identified by the tests have not been matched to another suspect, although Nale has said analysis was ongoing.

Daniel Medwed, a professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University and a founding member of the New England Innocence Project, which works to correct and prevent wrongful convictions, told the Press Herald that finding evidence of another suspect is the 'holy grail' in such cases, but not necessary to win a new trial.

"The key is whether or not the evidence now is so much weaker against Dennis Dechaine that he deserves a new trial, or this new finding about the biological evidence casts such doubt on it that justice would require an airing in court," he said.

Several other suspects have emerged in the Cherry case over the years, including child sex offenders who were living within a mile or two of the abduction site at the time. In addition, The Press Herald recently revealed that a serial killer, the late Richard Evonitz, known to kidnap young girls from their yards in broad daylight, was living in Portland that summer, a short drive from Bowdoin. The founder of the Innocence Project at University of Virginia Law School, Deirdre Enright, sent Nale Evonitz's DNA profile for comparison, after seeing the similarities between his crimes and the killing of Cherry.

Staff Writer Emily Allen contributed to this story.

This story will be updated.