Sunday, February 8, 2004
Murder conviction revisited
From left, Morrison Bonpasse, James Moore and Bill Bunting discuss the Dennis Dechaine case during a public Access Channel 4 interview on Jan. 29.
BY ART MAYERS
NEWCASTLE - Dennis Dechaine remains in the maximum security unit in Warren serving a life sentence for the 1988 murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry of Bowdoinham.
Since his 1989 conviction many have doubted that the quiet, hard-working, 30-year-old farmer kidnapped, raped and murdered Cherry. Dechaine supporters, organized under the name of Trial and Error, have tried for more than a decade to have the case revisited or the judgment overturned.
Bill Bunting of North Whitefield, Morrison Bonpasse of Sheepscot and author James Moore of Brunswick met on Jan. 30 to air their views on the case on a live call-in program on public access Channel 4.
"My first certainty was that Dennis did not get a fair trial," said Bunting.
Critics have held that the police investigation, prosecution case conducted by former Maine Assistant Attorney General Eric Wright, and bench conduct by Superior Court Judge Carl Bradford combined to produce a "rush to judgment" against Dechaine. The same people ignored or tried to cover up new evidence that served as the basis for appeals in the 1990s, critics say.
"My life was changed," said James Moore author of "Human Sacrifice," the 2002 book which picks apart in detail the crime, trial and appeals up until the date of publication.
Moore, a retired federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent said that he was skeptical when he went to a meeting on the Dechaine case sponsored by Trial and Error.
"I figured they were going to trash law enforcement," said Moore.
Instead he was so intrigued with the case that he tracked down and read all the materials and transcripts involved in the case.
"There was something that was not right," he said.
The piece of evidence that became crucial in his mind was the time of death as determined by the state medical examiner, Dr. Ronald Roy. Roy determined that Cherry had been dead for 30 to 36 hours when he performed the initial examination shortly after the body was found on July 8.
"The earliest she could have died was 2 a.m.," said Moore. Dechaine had been in police custody since 8:30 p.m. on the previous evening.
That fact led Moore to look deeper into the other evidence put forward in the trial which needed to be re-examined if it were to prove Dechaine's innocence.
Many of the facts brought out in trial and recounted by Moore remain beyond dispute.
Dechaine admitted leaving his Toyota pickup in the woods 450 feet away from where the body was discovered. He said he went into the woods to take drugs on the afternoon of July 6, became disoriented, stumbled out on the road after dark, where he was picked by a couple who helped him find his truck.
Meanwhile, Cherry had been abducted the same afternoon from the home where she was babysitting a few miles away. After she was reported missing a notebook and receipt with Dechaine's name was found in the driveway of the home at which she was babysitting.
Police were already looking for Dechaine when he stumbled out of the woods. They detained him for questioning when he voluntarily got into the cruiser while looking for his truck.
Moore said that as soon as Dechaine was apprehended, police viewed him as the only and primary suspect. Moore believes that Cherry was still alive when Dechaine had been picked up.
Morrison Bonpasse said he has spent up to six hours a day over the last few months working on the Dechaine case.
Bonpasse believes that Dechaine is psychologically incapable of murder.
"There is no dark side to Dennis Dechaine," said Bonpasse. He said that psychological evaluations conducted at the time indicated that drugs consumed by Dechaine would not have resulted in a drastic change in his personality.
"The state concluded he was not in psychotic state," said Bonpasse. That report was never made available to the jury, because it was excluded by Judge Bradford, said Bonpasse.
Bonpasse said that Dechaine at 135 pounds could not have abducted the 90 pound Cherry. There was no physical evidence of a struggle between Cherry and her assailant at the home at which she was babysitting or within Dechaine's truck. Blood found under the victim's fingernails did not match Dechaine's.
"There was the blood of two persons, neither was Dechaine's," said Bonpasse.
Dechaine's supporters have been eager to have DNA testing vindicate their case. Unfortunately, materials that could have been used to prove his innocence have been lost or destroyed, said Bonpasse.
If Dechaine did not kill Cherry, who did?
Moore's book identifies two men who had motives or a history of sexual abuse and violent behavior. Moore gives both men, Doug Senecal, formerly of Phippsburg, and Jason Fickett, formerly of Bowdoinham, pseudonyms because they were never charged.
In the July 1992 appeal defense attorney Tom Connolly attempted to introduce evidence that Senecal had also been seen in Bowdoinham with a young girl, presumably Cherry, at the time of the abduction.
Critics have also pointed to evidence of barefoot tracks leading to the Fickett trailer as discovered by police but never pursued as a clue. Fickett has been charged with several counts of sexual contact with young girls. His whereabouts are unknown to his closest relatives who have not had contact with him for over a year.
"He is a fugitive," said Bunting.
Damariscotta Police Chief Steve Drake said on Feb. 2 acknowledged that he had read the Moore book but remains convinced of Dechaine's guilt. Drake was a new State Police Detective and was present during the investigation, the trial and subsequent appeals.
"This guy is a cold blooded killer," said Drake of Dechaine. He said the string of circumstantial evidence and self-incriminating statements made to police by Dechaine made an iron clad case against him.
"If he gets out he will kill someone else," said Drake.
"If I had a minute piece of evidence that he is not guilty, I would try to free him." said Drake.
Bonpasse said that he and other members of Trial and Error do not wish to deprive the Cherry family of the closure that they need in knowing that their daughter's killer is being punished.
They also plan to pursue all means to prove Dechaine innocent.
"There are over 150 people nationwide who have had convictions overturned by DNA evidence.
Dechaine supporters have tried to distribute copies of Moore's book to anyone willing to read it. Bonpasse maintains the Trial and Error Web site at www.trialanderrordennis.org
"We won't rest until there is a retrial," said Bonpasse.
Art Mayers may be reached at [email protected]
Copyright 2004 Courier Publications