Dennis Dechaine, who is serving a life sentence in Maine State Prison for the 1988 murder of Sarah Cherry in Bowdoin, appears in Cumberland County Superior Court on November 7, 2013. Dechaine maintains that he is innocent of the crime. Credit: Christopher Cousins / BDN

MADAWASKA, Maine — Longtime supporters of convicted child killer Dennis Dechaine  say they are encouraged by a judge’s ruling in favor of new DNA testing in his case, and are raising money to pay for the tests.

A Knox County jury convicted Dechaine in 1989 for the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry who was babysitting at a Bowdoin home when she went missing on July 6, 1988. Her body was found two days later covered by brush in the woods several miles away.

Dechaine has unsuccessfully appealed his conviction five times over the years. His last effort was rejected by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 2016. In his latest request, Dechaine hopes the results of new DNA tests will allow him to have a new trial and ultimately exonerate him.

Trial and Error, a group convinced of Dechaine’s innocence, is raising the $50,000 it claims is required to cover the costs of new DNA tests on multiple pieces of evidence. The group has $35,000 left to raise.

Trial and Error founder Carol Waltman said the defense offered to pay for the DNA tests because they feared the motion for new testing would be denied otherwise. However, defense attorneys and the state are making arrangements to determine how much, if any, each side will pay for the testing.

“People who are guilty do not ask for DNA testing,” said Whitefield farmer Bill Bunting, vice president of Trial and Error. “If you combine the time of death with no evidence in Dennis’ truck, there’s really very compelling evidence that Dennis is innocent.”

Bunting, who regularly visits Dechaine at Maine State Prison, said he is encouraged and hopeful that new DNA testing will be done.

In the July 22 ruling granting a motion by Dechaine’s attorneys for further DNA testing, Maine Superior Court Justice Bruce Mallonee said that if he is actually innocent, Dechaine “has an essential interest in seeing that the truth is found, presented and recognized.” Dechaine’s attorneys argued testing should be allowed because of the new technology available.

Mallonee also said he was mindful of the powerful interests of Sarah Cherry’s family members.

“They have endured 34 years of litigation since their daughter was tortured and killed and they have a need, finally, for their suffering, and loss not to be aggravated by further court proceedings,” Mallonee wrote.

Nevertheless, Mallonee said he was bound by a Maine statute outlining the standards for ordering DNA analysis.

Dechaine’s attorneys at Nale Law Offices argue that DNA testing has advanced significantly since items in the case were last tested in 2012. At that time, biological matter under Cherry’s thumbnail was found not to include Dechaine but did include the DNA of an unidentified male.

Although he grew up in Madawaska, Dechaine, then 30, lived and worked as a farmer in Bowdoinham when Cherry was murdered.

Police searching for the missing girl on July 6 encountered Dechaine after he exited the woods on foot to a residence about 2 miles from where Cherry’s body was later found and told the residents he could not find his pickup truck.

Dechaine first claimed to have been fishing but later said he was using drugs in the woods to avoid his then-wife’s scrutiny of the habit. Dechaine’s truck was eventually located about 450 feet from where Cherry’s body was found the next day.

A notebook and car repair bill with Dechaine’s name were found in the driveway of the residence from which Cherry was abducted.

Police found no evidence to indicate Cherry had been in Dechaine’s truck, including fingerprints, hairs or blood. Likewise, no physical evidence that Dechaine had been in contact with Cherry was found on his person.

Police say Dechaine confessed to the murder, but Dechaine denies this. He has been imprisoned since his conviction.

Since the trial, Dr. Cyril Wecht, a world renowned pathologist who consulted on the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Anna Nicole Smith and many other high-profile cases, examined the evidence in the Dechaine case. Dr. Wecht said it is his opinion Dechaine could not have murdered Cherry because at the time of her death, he had already exited the woods and was under police surveillance.

“Unfortunately, that did not come up in the original trial,” Wecht said.

A scarf found around Cherry contained Dechaine’s DNA, but his supporters argue the item had been in Dechaine’s truck prior to the murder, so it would make sense to find his DNA on it.

​​Dechaine’s attorneys argued that new methods of testing, including the M-VAC wet vacuum collection system — a sterile wet vacuum cleaner that pulls DNA from surfaces  — and probabilistic genotyping — a way to calculate the probability that the evidence gathered would have led to the conclusion made — could prove Dechaine’s innocence.

“Finally we got somebody who agrees this should be looked at again,” Waltman said. “Maybe new eyes will bring the light to this.”

Mallonee did not seem as convinced.  

“The court’s ruling [July 22] specifically does not endorse defendant’s bold assertion that examination of the items by enhanced technology will identify a perpetrator other than himself,” he wrote.