ANATOMY OF A RAILROAD
by James P. Moore
On a beautiful Wednesday in July 1988, a twelve-year-old babysitter named Sarah Cherry was abducted, tortured and strangled to death in rural Maine. Papers found outside the house where she'd been snatched bore the name of Dennis Dechaine. Witnesses for the State would testify that at 8:30 that evening, they saw Dechaine emerge from a woods where, at noon on Friday, Sarah's desecrated body would be found.
Police encountered him at 9:30p.m. and interrogated him until 4:20a.m. Thursday.
Dechaine was anxious lest the officers detect the signs that he was coming down off the "speed" he'd actually been doing in those woods. Learning that he was suspected in the disappearance of a child turned anxiety to fear. He lied - claimed he'd been fishing. But he had no fish, nor even a fishing pole with him.
There was no forensic clue. No fingerprint or any other sign of Dechaine at the abduction site nor the place where the body was found other than items which had been in his unoccupied truck. No witness saw him with the girl. But people said they'd seen his truck in the area, and then Dechaine began babbling things like, "I don't know how I could have done such a thing" -- words that authorities would call a confession, even though nothing he said revealed any aspect of the crime or how it was committed.
Two months prior to trial, defense lawyer Tom Connolly asked the court for DNA tests on the blood under Sarah's fingernails. The state's lab reported that blood as Type A. Dechaine's is Type O. Sarah's blood was Type A. Prosecutors guessed the blood was "probably" from when she'd clawed at her wounds. DNA testing would take months. The fingernails showed no evidence of skin tissue. Prosecutor Wright argued, "While Mr. Dechaine's body had some small scratches on them, they were not of such significance as to have caused him to have bled." So the likelihood of finding Dechaine's blood was "so remote, I think, as to be really nil."
Did Wright miss Connolly's thrust - that scratches on the real killer might have caused him to bleed?
Connolly argued that, "Even if the court ultimately determines there may be only a ten-percent chance that the tests would be exculpatory, then . . . given the fact that there are no eyewitnesses in the case, that there's circumstantial evidence which is persuasive but at the same time not ultimately conclusive . . .I think the evidence should be allowed to go forward. . .."
Wright told the judge, "What we are doing here is doing nothing more than delaying a case which is, as the court knows, very troubling to the community emotionally. They want it over with . . . I guess what I'm saying here is the short delay isn't worth the gamble." Connolly cited rape cases where the procedure had been successful and the results admitted as evidence.
Judge Bradford ruled that, "Weighing everything in the balance here in the light most favorable to the defendant is the possibility that the blood under the two remaining thumbnails was the blood of someone other than Sarah Cherry and other than Mr. Dechaine, and the possibility of that happening is so remote that I cannot grant the motion to continue this case. . ."
Suppressing potential proof of innocence was "viewing facts in the light most favorable to the defendant"???
Dechaine was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. In Maine, where there's no parole, "life" means" until you're dead."
A group spung up calling itself Trial & error - more than 400 ordinary citizens who believed that Dechaine hadn't received justice. As a retired federal agent, I wrote them off as just another bunch of boobs trashing my former profession. But I listened to one of the presentations they were making around Maine, and changed my mind. They weren't idiots. They were naïve, but sincere. So I offered to examine the case, fully expecting to bring them logical explanations for all their doubts.
The elements of the case they'd questioned had little relevance. But further investigation opened my eyes.
In every trial I've ever known, to show that death occurred at an hour when the accused had opportunity to commit the crime, the medical examiner tells jurors that, "the victim died between X and Y o'clock." . In this case, however, Dr. Roy testified that, "Rigor mortis was still present but it was broken relatively easy. In my opinion, it was passing off." Based on that, Sarah had "been dead for thirty-to-thirty-six hours."
Every text on forensic pathology I could get at my library, the Bowdoin College Library, and through the inter-library loan system, confirmed Dr. Roy's conclusion. Rigor mortis begins in the muscles of the head, face and neck, then progresses down through the body and into the arms and legs. It remains for a time, then dissipates in the same order until the stiffness has disappeared altogether. Under normal circumstances, rigor mortis leaves the body about thirty-six hours after death.
But if Sarah died thirty-six hours before Dr. Roy examined her body, that places the earliest possible time of death at 2:00a.m. on Thursday - at least 5 ½ hours after the state's witnesses were with Dechaine; at least 4 ½ hours after officers began interrogating him. They kept him in custody until 4:20a.m. After that, his time is accounted for by others.
It's true that variables can affect the progress of rigor mortis. But every variable possible in this case -- the victim's age, ambient temperature, and the existence of terror at the time of death - would place her death even later than 2:00 a.m.. Nor could Sarah have been strangled and left by her killer to a lingering death. The scarf about her neck constricted her throat to a diameter of 2 ½ or three inches.
Ultimately, long after the trial, Connolly succeeded in getting a DNA test. There were two blood types under Sarah's nails; neither were Dechaine's.
Probing deeper, I uncovered facts prosecutors had concealed. More than that part of the autopsy report indicating time of death. I encountered resistance to disclosing legally accessible evidence. I found lies and cover-ups. I also found a disturbing culture of indifference among members of the legal profession - lawyers and judges, even the Bar Overseers -- who tolerate egregious violations of their so-called ethics.
Back when everyone was still searching for the missing Sarah, police reports document two sets of bare footprints, one large and one small (Sarah was barefoot when abducted) leading directly to the door of a man investigated only weeks earlier (and later convicted) for having sex with another 12-year-old girl; a case investigated by the same detective leading the Sarah Cherry case. But this lead detective told his partner, "We're losing the light" and "We'll have the wardens look into this in the morning." Whereupon, they walked away. They didn't even knock on that door!
Trial testimony by the lead detective and a trooper describes following their tracking dog as it led them from Dechaine's truck and off through the woods (probably following the track Dechaine made that day when he went in to shoot up the speed). Both officers mentioned sounds emanating from the spot where Sarah's body would be found on Friday - sounds they attributed to deer. But the time of this event, stated in their official reports, was 2:00a.m. -- the precise hour when, according to medical examiner Roy, Sarah was being murdered. Dechaine was a quarter of a mile away, nearing his sixth hour of questioning by other officers.
The state's case requires that Dechaine carried Sarah Cherry away in his truck. But microscopic examination of vacuumed debris from that truck found no fingerprint, no blood, no fabric, not a single one of Sarah's hairs. Textbooks put the typical blonde's hair count between 80,000 and 140,000. They lose, on average, sixty-six hairs a day without being kidnapped, wrestled into a truck, or struggling.
The police tracking dog detected no scent of Sarah in Dechaine's truck.
Dechaine had exhausted every legal avenue, so I wrote Human Sacrifice. Copies of crucial police reports appear in its appendix. My purpose: to inform the public, to generate letters asking Governor King* for a pardon to end fourteen years of unjust imprisonment.
But Governor King* leaves office at the end of this year. It'll be years before any successor musters the courage to pardon a convicted killer. Please read the book. All evidence is documented. (Incidentally, I'm accepting no royalties for Human Sacrifice.)
Reach your own verdict. And write - write soon. For justice!
Gov. Angus King*
#1 State House Station
Augusta, Me 04333-0001