AJC reporter wins national award for young journalists

Judges praise reporter’s work to free wrongfully convicted man.
Joshua Sharpe (Photo by Max Blau)

Joshua Sharpe (Photo by Max Blau)

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter whose investigation into a decades-old murder that helped set a wrongfully convicted man free has been honored as one of the top young journalists in the nation.

AJC criminal justice reporter Joshua Sharpe was one of three journalists honored Thursday with Livingston Awards. The prestigious awards, now in their 40th year, recognize the best reporting by professional journalists under the age of 35.

Sharpe, 34, won for best local reporting for “The Imperfect Alibi,” an extensive investigation into a 36-year-old double murder of Harold and Thelma Swain in Camden County on the Georgia coast. Dennis Perry became a free man last year after serving 20 years behind bars for a murder he insisted he did not commit.

“For more than two decades, a man said that he wasn’t the person who murdered a deacon and his wife, both pillars of the local black community in Spring Bluff, Georgia,” said Anna Quindlen, an author and Livingston judge. “Joshua Sharpe asked the right questions, refusing easy answers and pretty much proved that man was telling the truth and was innocent.”

Perry was arrested in 2000 and later convicted of murdering the Swains, who were shot inside their church in 1985. Perry’s convictions were overturned in July after new DNA evidence linked a former suspect, Erik Sparre, to the crime scene.

Reporting weeks earlier by Sharpe showed Sparre’s alibi the night of the murders could not be true.

Sparre was an initial suspect after his ex-wife’s family contacted authorities and told them he bragged about killing the Swains and used a racial slur. But Sparre, who is white, had an alibi at the time that showed he was working at a Brunswick Winn-Dixie and he was dropped as a suspect.

Sharpe’s reporting showed the supposed manager who vouched for Sparre to the police had given a fake name, and the person who ran the store at the time of the murders never spoke to police. Sparre has maintained his innocence.

AJC Editor Kevin Riley praised Sharpe’s work.

“All of us at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution are immensely proud of Joshua Sharpe,” Riley said. “His tenacity, professionalism and skill freed an innocent man. And his work showed the power and value of local journalism.”

Sharpe, who joined the AJC in July 2016, is a native Waycross. He previously worked at the Gwinnett Daily Post and Cherokee Tribune.

“I am outrageously honored and grateful,” Sharpe said. “I am so grateful to the people who helped along the way and for the people who worked on this case before I came along.

“Dozens of people who worked on this case through the years, every one of them, moved the needle,” Sharpe said. I’m grateful to Dennis Perry and his family who put their trust in us and trusted me specifically.”

The Livingston Awards honor reporting across all media platforms. The awards are sponsored by the University of Michigan and numerous foundations.

Hannah Dreier, 33, of The Washington Post, won for national reporting, and Chao Deng, 32, of The Wall Street Journal, won for international reporting. The three journalists each earned $10,000 prizes.

Learn more about The Imperfect Alibi story

Breakdown: Hear the project podcast with reporter Joshua Sharpe

Read the story from July 2020 when Dennis Perry left prison after his conviction was overturned

From the editor: Great reporting, editing yields great story

Full coverage of the murder investigation at a South Georgia Church

Video: Watch a mini-documentary about the project produced by the AJC