The special ed teacher remembered the man. She also remembered the blue-and-white gloves he wore when he put the knife to her throat.
She identified that man as Sandeep “Sonny” Bharadia, who was convicted 12 years ago of a terrifying sexual assault and locked up for life. But DNA later recovered from the blue-and-white gloves did not come from Bharadia. It came from another man and authorities know who he is.
This revelation has been of no help to Bharadia. Lawyers from the Georgia Innocence Project, who insist the 39-year-old Stone Mountain man did not commit the crime, are asking the Georgia Court of Appeals to allow Bharadia to receive a new trial.
The sexual assault occurred in Thunderbolt, a suburb of Savannah, two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In halting testimony, the school teacher said her attacker told her he had broken into her apartment on orders from al-Qaeda. The terrorist group, he said, wanted him to take her computer because of some information that had been downloaded onto it.
The Auburn, Ala., native testified she had just moved to the Savannah area for her first job at a local middle school. On Nov. 18, 2001, she returned from church and found things amiss, with her computer piled on a chair.
Then a man stepped out from behind a door.
“He looked like he wasn’t expecting me,” she testified during the June 2003 trial.
He put his hand over her mouth and told her not to scream. He pushed her into her bedroom closet and told her to take off her clothes. He covered her head to shield her view. He put a knife to her throat and said: If you do anything stupid, I’ll kill you, she testified.
Speaking with a thick Middle Eastern accent, he said he knew everything about her parents. He recited their Alabama address and her father’s name and said he could hurt them too.
All the while, she noted, he wore a pair of distinctive blue-and-white gloves.
He later moved her onto her bed, where he blindfolded and bound her. He then committed aggravated sodomy and aggravated sexual battery, prosecutors said.
The woman testified that there were times when she could see her attacker. She also thought she could hear him talking to another man outside.
If she called police, she would be killed, he said. He left with her computer, CDs, jewelry and camera.
The woman called her aunt and drove to Macon, where her mother picked her up and took her to Auburn. Once home, the victim’s mother would tell the jury that her daughter was “a basket case.”
She took every knife from the kitchen and assembled them in her room for protection. She walked through the house wielding a poker from the fireplace. She told her parents not to contact the Thunderbolt police, because her attacker said the department had been infiltrated by al-Qaeda.
Her parents initially went to the FBI. Eventually, however, they met with a Thunderbolt detective.
Around this same time, police found the items stolen from the teacher’s apartment, as well as the knife and gloves used in the attack. They were found inside a bag in a house in Savannah and the owner of the house told police that her boyfriend, Sterling Flint, had brought them there.
The key breakthrough in the case was due to a tip from an unexpected source: Bharadia.
Bharadia, who testified in his defense, acknowledged he had once been a car thief and operated a chop shop. But he strongly denied having anything to do with the sexual assault. On that Sunday, he was in Atlanta working on a friend’s car, he said.
One witness, whose husband worked with Bharadia in a sheet metal shop, backed up the alibi. She testified that Bharadia came to her Atlanta home that morning to borrow some tools and left around noon. He returned them that same day around 6 p.m., she testified.
That Sunday, Bharadia testified, he also learned that his Chevy Tahoe, which he had loaned to a friend, was in an impound lot in Beaufort, S.C. The next morning, Bharadia, still on parole for his car theft convictions, obtained permission from his parole officer to go pick it up.
After retrieving his SUV, Bharadia said, he asked Flint to follow him back to Atlanta in the Tahoe. But on the drive back, Bharadia said, Flint drove off with the Tahoe, leading Bharadia to call police and report his SUV was stolen.
A few days later, Bharadia received a call from metro Atlanta police who said his Tahoe had been used to commit a number of burglaries, according to testimony. Bharadia told police that Flint had stolen his SUV and he also informed them that Flint had stolen a motorcycle, which was at Flint’s girlfriend’s house in Savannah.
It was that tip that led police to the bag containing the school teacher’s possessions, the gloves and the knife.
Thunderbolt police soon showed the school teacher a photographic lineup of six men. The woman circled a photo of Flint and the photo of another man, saying they looked familiar to her. Later, she was shown another photographic lineup and stopped at one picture, saying she was sure this was the man who’d attacked her: Bharadia.
“When I saw the defendant’s face in the photo lineup, I automatically knew that was who it was,” she testified. “Without any doubt whatsoever. … Those are his eyes. I’ll never forget them.”
Flint was indicted with Bharadia but not charged with the sexual assault. Shortly before Bharadia’s trial, Flint struck a deal, pleading guilty to theft by receiving stolen property. At trial, he testified that Bharadia had given him the bag of stolen items to keep until Bharadia came back to get them.
There was no physical evidence that tied Bharadia to the crime scene. But the victim’s testimony was enough for the jury, which reached its guilty verdict in less than an hour and 15 minutes.
Before the trial, Bharadia turned down a prosecution offer for a 10-year prison sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. At the time, he knew if he declined the deal and was convicted, he faced the prospect of never seeing the outside of a prison wall again.
That was the sentence Superior Court Judge James Bass imposed: life without the possibility of parole.
DNA exonerations often share the same script: a test result that proves the wrongful conviction, a jubilant defendant released after years of incarceration and a stunned victim who had testified she had no doubt in her attacker’s identity.
Bharadia’s case has not followed such a script.
A year after his conviction, Bharadia’s lawyers tested the blue-and-white gloves and learned that DNA found on them did not come from Bharadia. Eight years later, the Georgia Innocence Project obtained an order to have the DNA found on the gloves run through a national database that contains the results of samples obtained in criminal cases as well as samples collected from inmates.
In April 2012, the GBI found a match: the DNA from the gloves belonged to Flint.
Armed with this result, Bharadia’s lawyers returned to Bass and asked for a new trial. They said the DNA results show that Flint, now in prison for burglaries, committed the sexual assault.
In January, Bass said that the DNA match, along with Bharadia’s denial of guilt and his alibi witness, might produce a different verdict: not guilty. But the judge found that Bharadia had not cleared all the procedural hurdles necessary to obtain a new trial, such as the fact that he knew about the gloves before trial and did not have them tested.
In recent arguments, Chatham County prosecutor Stacy Goad told the Court of Appeals that “the gloves are not the smoking gun the defendant would have you believe.” They were found 10 days after the sexual assault and could have been worn by a number of people during that time, she said.
But Alissa Jones, one of Bharadia’s lawyers, said Flint testified that he had nothing to do with the bag that contained the gloves. “Sandeep Bharadia is innocent of these crimes,” she said.