Facts to consider when watching
Murder in America: The Sarah Cherry Story
The back story of this film is that filmmaker Angelo Lazero was taking in a ball game at Yankee Stadium when he struck up a conversation with a Maine State trooper who told him about the Dechaine/Cherry case. The film that resulted contains many factual errors and misleading statements supplied by police and prosecutors, in some instances conflicting with their own sworn testimony.
Although many of these inaccuracies were pointed out to Mr. Lazero, he made no changes to his film. Surely the most damning claim made by Detective Hendsbee and also Prosecutor Wright, which is repeated in the film, is that Dechaine’s truck could only be locked with a key. This contradicts Hendsbee’s official report that the truck could be locked without a key.
In fact, Trial & Error located a Toyota truck of the same year and we could indeed lock it without a key. And even with the doors locked, there was still access to the cab through the rear slider. Hendsbee’s claim late in the film that he tested the doors again at the crime lab and on that occasion he could not lock them without a key must be dismissed as a self-serving fantasy, one of many.
The state never attempted to explain why Dechaine would have locked the doors of his getaway vehicle, much less how he would have done so while struggling with his victim. Or why he would have taken her across a public road instead of deeper into the woods.
In court, Prosecutor Wright explained the lack of any fingerprints, hair, or scent of Sarah Cherry in Dechaine’s truck by stating that this was how “God made it.” Really? Photos taken of the interior of the cab clearly indicate that the contents had been “tossed” by someone who was presumably looking for something.
Detective Hendsbee’s speculation that the pine needles insulated the body “like a small refrigerator” is, quite simply, incredible. From the day Sarah disappeared to the time — two days later — when her body was found, the region was undergoing a heat wave. The only credible explanation for the fact that the body “wasn’t decomposed one iota” was that Sarah died many hours after Dechaine was arrested. Her neck was constricted by the ligature to less than 3 inches, meaning that she died very quickly and could not have lingered.
Contrary to Hendsbee’s statement that the driveway was sandy and contained good tire tracks, the state police expert who lifted the tracks said that it was hard-packed. The only passable casting he was able to make, of the left front tire, was of a very common tread similar to the tread on Dechaine’s truck. Of significance is the fact that he found no impressions from the rear tires, although Dechaine’s rear tires were heavily treaded snow tires. The two items from the truck with Dechaine’s name on them were found some distance ahead of the tire tracks.
Despite Hendsbee’s claim, no one reported having seen a red pickup in the Henkle driveway. Hendsbee’s statement that Dechaine did not give his name is contradicted by the testimony of Mr. Buttrick. The scratches on Dechaine were judged to be superficial, likely caused by branches, and were not entered as evidence during the trial. Photos taken of Dechaine clearly show dilated pupils, indicating that he had indeed taken drugs. The blood sample which would have shown what drug he had injected was “lost.”
The defense agreed that the rope which bound Sarah’s hands had been taken, along with other items, from Dechaine’s truck. Thus, the fact that the rope taken from the pickup was similar to the rope in
Dechaine’s barn was entirely irrelevant, except to Hendsbee, who would have film viewers believe that Dechaine drove back to his barn to get the rope. Although at trial Hendsbee claimed to be reading from his notes when he quoted Dechaine as having said, “Someone inside me must have done it,” there is no such statement in his notes, which were only obtained, many years later, after a lawsuit was filed against the Office of the Attorney General.
The likely time of death — and what the jury was told about it — is a central component of Dechaine’s claim of innocence. In the film, Prosecutor Wright ignores the core evidence and its scientific implications, and instead shifts the blame to Dechaine’s lawyer. While it is true that under our adversarial system it was the responsibility of the defense to show that this was critical evidence of Dechaine’s innocence — which was not done — it is disturbing that the state’s prosecutors were evidently more concerned with winning than with seeking truth and justice. And that this remains so.
Regarding the conclusions of a “respected forensic examiner from Vermont,” Wright neglected to mention that this pathologist, Dr. Eleanor McQuillen, was under the mistaken belief that the body was partially buried in “cool earth,” thus explaining the lack of decomposition and her agreement with the conclusions of the medical examiner, Dr. Roy. She also wrote that the autopsy report was “preliminary” and incomplete. Nor did Wright mention that other pathologists strongly disagreed with her and Dr. Roy’s conclusions.
Six weeks after Dechaine filed an appeal the state incinerated possibly exculpatory biological evidence — including unidentified hair, fingernails, the rape kit, Sarah’s pants– without notifying the defense or the court. In the film, Wright blamed Dechaine’s lawyer for, in effect, assuming that the state would do no such thing!
Wright’s statements in the film saying that in 1992 the value and accuracy of testing — he omitted mentioning DNA testing by name — were not known are proved false by documents showing that the state first engaged in DNA testing in 1988, just a few weeks after the Cherry murder. According to Dr. Henry Ryan, the chief medical examiner, in an affidavit, Wright was considered to be the DNA expert in the AG’s Office.
Detective Mark Westrum’s long and detailed account describing Dechaine’s alleged actions and statements — matters which only Westrum was a witness to — is vehemently denied by Dechaine. At the trial Westrum testified that Dechaine hugged him for approximately two minutes. Really? See how long it takes for your watch’s second hand to make two revolutions. As retired ATF agent Jim Moore observed, the accuracy of Detective Westrum’s testimony is open to question.
Psychologist Neil MacLean has a long history of testifying on behalf of the state. It should be noted that the only fact he states here is that Dechaine strongly proclaimed his innocence. The remainder of
his testimony consists of conjecture. When MacLean and Prosecutor Wright refer to allegations of a conspiracy they raise a red herring, since Dechaine’s supporters have never claimed that state officials conspired to convict Dennis Dechaine. (The statement made in court in June 2012 by Deputy Attorney General Bill Stokes that Dechaine’s supporters believe that Dechaine was the victim of an elaborate frame-up is also false; no such claim has ever been made.)
Detective Hendsbee’s concluding statements in the film regarding what has became known as the Green River Murders are ludicrous. Not only did Washington State law enforcement officials see no similarities, but the actual killer was found and convicted.
Finally, it is very curious that in this supposedly even-handed documentary the only references to DNA evidence are found in brief statements regarding Dechaine’s pre-trial request for testing, which the state opposed and the judge denied. There is no mention of the subsequent testing which discovered DNA of an unidentified male — NOT Dennis Dechaine — on one of the thumb nails. The thumb nails were inadvertently omitted from the state’s 1992 incineration of evidence.
The film can be viewed at http://www.moonlakefilms.com/press-release.htm