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State v. Dechaine

Superior Court of Maine, Knox

April 9, 2014



Carl O. Bradford, Justice

This matter is before the Court on the defendant's motion for a new trial under the Post-Judgment Conviction Motion for DNA Analysis statute, 15 M.R.S. § § 2136-2138 (2013).[1] The Court held testimonial hearings on June 12-14, 2012 and November 7-8, 2013. For the following reasons, the motion is denied.

1. Factual and Procedural Background

The history of this case now spans more than 25 years. The major events can be summarized as follows:

On July 6, 1988, 12-year old Sarah Cherry went missing from a house in Bowdoin where she had been babysitting. Two days later her body was found in the woods a few miles from the house. Defendant Dennis J. Dechaine was arrested after her body was discovered. Attorneys George M. Carlton and Thomas J. Connolly represented Dechaine before and during the trial.

On August 1, 1988, a Sagadahoc County Grand Jury indicted Dechaine for the following crimes:

Count I- Intentional or knowing murder, 17-A M.R.S. § 201(1)(A) (1983)
Count II- Depraved indifference murder, 17-A M.R.S. § 201(1)(B) (1983 & Supp. 1987)
Count III- Kidnapping, 17-A M.R.S. § 301(1)(A)(3) (1983)
Count IV[2] - Rape, 17-A M.R.S. § § 251(1)(B) and 252(1)(A) (1983 & Supp. 1987)
Count V - Gross sexual misconduct, 17-A M.R.S. § § 251(1)(A) & (C)(3), 253(1)(B) (1983 & Supp. 1987)
Count VI - Gross sexual misconduct, 17-A M.R.S. § § 251(1)(A) & (C)(3), 253(1)(B) (1983 & Supp. 1987)

State v. Dechaine, Sagadahoc County, Indictment No. CR- 88-244 (Me. Super. Ct., Aug. 1, 1988). Venue was transferred to Knox County for trial and assigned a new docket number, CR-89-71. (2/16/89 Order.)

Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion to Compel Discovery and Continue the Trial. The defendant sought to have Sarah Cherry's fingernails sent to a lab in California for DNA testing, which at the time was a new procedure. A hearing was held on January 27, 1989. Judith Brinkman, forensic chemist with the Maine State Police Crime Lab, testified about her blood typing work and defendant's request for DNA testing. (1/27/89 Tr. 10.) She testified that eight of Sarah Cherry's ten fingernail clippings were consumed to perform ABO blood-typing tests. (1/27/89 Tr. 21.) Ms. Brinkman explained that the blood under Sarah Cherry's nails was consistent with someone with Type A blood. (1/27/89 Tr. 19.) Sarah Cherry herself had type A blood. (1/27/89 Tr. 19.) Thus, Ms. Brinkman assumed that it was Sarah Cherry's own blood under her nails based on her knowledge of the facts of the case, including how her body was found and the small puncture wounds in her neck. (1/27/89 Tr. 19-20, 46-47.) Ms. Brinkman testified that, if there was a mixture, she would expect to see some evidence of tissue present under the nails to indicate scratching, but she did not find any such tissue. (1/27/89 Tr. 22.)

Ms. Brinkman also testified about defendant's request for DNA testing on the remaining nails. At the time, there was only one known lab in the United States, a lab in California, that used a DNA procedure known as polymerase chain reaction (" PCR") testing.[3] (1/27/89 Tr. 12-13.) Ms. Brinkman spoke to a representative of that lab, Jennifer Mehavolin, and explained the quantity of blood that was present on the remaining nails and the conditions it underwent prior to its collection. (1/27/89 Tr. 22.) Ms. Mehavolin informed Ms. Brinkman that it would be difficult to get good results given the small quantity of blood. (1/27/89 Tr. 22.)

Based on Ms. Brinkman's testimony, the Court concluded that the possibility that the blood under Sarah Cherry's nails was from someone other than Sarah Cherry or Dechaine was so remote that it could not grant the motion to continue, which would delay the trial for up to six months. (1/27/89 Tr. 23, 61.)

Defendant's trial began on March 6, 1989 and lasted two weeks. The most probative evidence in the case can be summarized as follows:

On July 6, 1988, Sarah Cherry was babysitting John and Jennifer Henkel's 10-month old baby at their home on Lewis Hill Road in Bowdoin. (Trial Tr. Vol. I 117, 125.) At around noon on that day, Mrs. Henkel called Sarah to check in, and Sarah said she was feeding the baby and preparing to make her own lunch. (Trial Tr. Vol. I 170.) When Nirs. Henkel returned home at 3:20pm that day, Sarah was missing. (Trial Tr. Vol. I 171, 176-79.)

Two days later, on July 8, 1988 Sarah's body was found in the woods, partially concealed under a pile of brush. (Trial Tr. Vol. III 496-97.) She was bound and gagged, her pants were pulled down, and she had one stick protruding from her anus and one from her vagina. (Trial Tr. Vol. III 553-54, 558, 560-61, 563.)

A substantial amount of circumstantial evidence connected Dechaine to the crime. Mrs. Henkel discovered a car repair bill and a notebook belonging to Dechaine in her driveway when she returned home on July 6. (Trial Tr. Vol. I 172; Vol. II 281.) The Henkels' neighbor, Holly Johnson testified that around 1pm on July 6, 1988, she heard a vehicle slow down at the Henkels' house and she heard the Henkels' dogs barking. (Trial Tr. Vol. II 338, 340.) About fifteen minutes later, she saw a red truck driving northbound on Lewis Hill Road. (Trail Tr. Vol. II 341.) Dechaine drove a red Toyota pick-up truck. (Trial Tr. Vol. II at 399.)

The chief medical examiner, Dr. Ronald Roy, testified that Sarah Cherry's body had multiple small stab wounds around her neck, chest, and head that could have been made by a penknife, which Dechaine typically carried on his keychain. (Trial Tr. Vol. III 564-65, 571; Vol. VI 1128.) Dechaine's wife, Nancy Emmons, was surprised to learn that the penknife was missing from his keychain when Dechaine was arrested. (Trial Tr. Vol. VI 1128.) Ms. Brinkman testified at trial that the rope used to tie Sarah's hands and a rope found in Dechaine's truck shared the same basic characteristics. (Trial Tr. Vol. N 732.) A rope fragment found in the woods not far from where Sarah's body was found, was once connected to the rope found in Dechaine's truck. (Trial Tr. Vol. IV 737.) Sarah's body was found approximately 400 feet from where Dechaine's truck was found in the woods. (Trial Tr. Vol. I 53-54.) On the evening of July 6, Dechaine was seen walking out of the woods in the general area where Cherry's body was ultimately found. (Trial Tr. Vol. I 202-04.)

Multiple law enforcement officers testified that Dechaine admitted his guilt. After Sarah's body was found on July 8, Detective Alfred Hendsbee drove to Dechaine's house. (Trial Tr. Vol. IV 799.) He testified that as soon as he arrived, Dechaine approached his vehicle and said, " I can't believe I could do such a thing. The real me is not like that. I know me. I couldn't do anything like that. It must be somebody else inside of me." (Trial Tr. Vol. IV 799.) Detective Mark Westrum testified that, during the booking procedure after Dechaine's arrest, Dechaine started sobbing and said, " Oh my God; it should never have happened. Why did I do this?" (Trial Tr. Vol. IV 830.) According to Westrum's testimony, Dechaine later said, " I didn't think it actually happened until I saw her on the news; then it all came back to me. I remembered it." (Trial Tr. Vol. IV 831.) Westrum further testified that Dechaine continued to sob and made other similarly incriminating statements. (Trial Tr. Vol. IV 830-833.) Dechaine was taken to the Lincoln County Jail the evening of July 8. (Trial Tr. Vol. IV 833.) Darryl Robert Maxcy, a Lincoln County corrections officer, testified that Dechaine said, " You people need to know I'm the one who murdered that girl, and you may want to put me in isolation." (Trial Tr. Vol. V 855.) Brenda Dermody, another corrections officer, testified that Dechaine made the statement almost exactly as described by Maxcy. (Trial Tr. Vol. V 855.) Dechaine testified at trial and denied making any of the admissions. (Trial Tr. Vol. VII 1271-72, 1286, 1291-92.)

According to De chaine's testimony, on July 6, 1988 he injected himself with drugs and went driving and then walking around the woods near Hallowell Road. (Trial Tr. Vol. VI 1219, 1222-24.) He became lost and could not find where he parked his truck. (Trial Tr. Vol. VI 1225-26.) He followed the sound of a generator and emerged from the woods, where he encountered Helen and Harry Buttrick, who lived in the area. (Trial Tr. Vol. VI 1228-30.) Dechaine told them that he had become lost while fishing and could not find his truck. (Trial Tr. Vol. VI 1230.) Mr. Buttrick offered to drive Dechaine around to look for his truck. (Trial Tr. Vol. VI 1230-31, 1233.)

As Mr. Buttrick and Dechaine were driving around, a police car passed them and Mr. Buttrick motioned for it to stop. (Trial Tr. Vol. VI 1234-35.) Dechaine got into the police car and told the officer the same story, that he had lost his truck while fishing. (Trial Tr. Vol. VI 1235.) By that time, the police were looking for Dechaine because of the notebook and car repair bill found at the Henkel residence with Dechaine's name on it. (Trial Tr. Vol. VI 1237-38.) The officer drove Dechaine to another location, where a different officer began questioning him. (Trial Tr. Vol. VI 1236-37.) Dechaine testified that he lied about what he was doing in the woods because he did not want the Buttricks or the police to find out about his drug use. (Trial Tr. Vol. VI 1231-32, 1253.)

When the police discovered Dechaine's truck in the early morning of July 7, the truck was locked. (Trial Tr. Vol. II 401, 420-21.) Dechaine originally told the officers that he had left his keys in the truck. (Trial Tr. Vol. II 394.) He testified that, later on, he discovered that the keys to the truck were in his pocket. (Trial Tr. Vol. VI 1244.) Dechaine panicked and threw the keys under the front seat of the police cruiser because he thought that hiding the keys " would avoid another confrontation." (Trial Tr. Vol. VI 1245.)

Prior to resting, defense counsel sought to introduce evidence implicating an alternative perpetrator, Douglas Senecal. Douglas Senecal was indicted for unlawful sexual conduct with his stepdaughter, the daughter of Sarah Cherry's father and Senecal's wife.[4] (3/16/89 Chambers Tr. 4.) The defense's theory was that Senecal may have killed Sarah to prevent her from testifying against him at his trial. (3/16/89 Chambers Tr. 14.) There was no evidence, however, that Sarah was going to be a witness at Senecal's trial or that Senecal knew where she was babysitting on July 6, 1988. (3/16/89 Chambers Tr. 14, 17-18.) The Court concluded that the evidence would invite the jury to engage in speculation and therefore excluded it. (3/16/89 Chambers Tr. 23, 29.)

On March 18, 1989, the jury convicted defendant on all five of the remaining counts charged. The Court imposed concurrent life sentences on the two counts of murder and concurrent 20-year sentences on each of the other counts.

Defendant filed a timely appeal of the judgment. The Law Court modified the judgment to impose one conviction on the two alternative forms of murder, but otherwise affirmed. State v. Decahine, 572 A.2d 130, 136 (Me. 1990). The Law Court specifically affirmed this Court's decision denying the continuance for DNA testing prior to trial and agreed with the Court that defendant's evidence regarding Douglas Senecal as an alternative perpetrator was speculative. Id. at 134. Defendant also appealed the propriety of the sentence and that appeal was denied. State v. Dechaine, No. AD- 89-27 (Me. App.Div. May 4, 1990).

Thereafter, Mr. Connolly filed a motion to remove certain defense exhibits, including the fingernail clippings, from the clerk's office. After a hearing on February 4, 1991, the Court denied Mr. Connolly's motion to remove defense exhibits and ordered that the clerk of the court shall not permit the removal of any exhibit in the case without a court order. (2/21/91 Order.) The Court further instructed that if any person wanted to examine the exhibits, the examination must be done in the clerk's office and under the clerk's supervision. Id.

In April 1992, Mr. Connolly received a letter from the Knox County clerk's office informing him that, pursuant to an administrative order, exhibits from the Dechaine case would be destroyed if counsel did not arrange to pick them up. (4/17/92 Clerk's Letter.) On April 30, 1992, the Court authorized the destruction of exhibits in the Dechaine case, unless counsel arranged to pick up the items. (4/30/92 Order.) Mr. Connolly collected certain exhibits from the trial on May 5, 1992. (4/17/92 Clerk's Letter.)

On the same day, May 5, 1992, defendant filed a Motion for a New Trial. The motion focused on claims that newly discovered evidence suggested Douglas Senecal was the perpetrator of the crimes against Sarah Cherry. The Court held hearings on July 2, July 8, and July 9, 1992. The Court denied the motion on July 31, 1992. State v. Dechaine, KNOXSC-CR- 1989-71 (Me. Super. Ct., Knox Cty., July 31, 1992). Defendant filed an ...

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