Conviction overturned in Ga. church murders case

Dennis Perry in a recent photo. (Family photo)

Dennis Perry in a recent photo. (Family photo)

A judge on Friday overturned Dennis Perry’s convictions in the murders of two people who were killed in their South Georgia church in 1985.

Perry, 58, has served 20 years of two life sentences since his arrest in 2000. Glynn County Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett’s decision to toss the murder convictions came after new DNA evidence emerged tying a previous suspect to the scene where Harold and Thelma Swain were shot inside Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Camden County.

The judge’s order did not grant Perry release. With his convictions gone, he now faces the original murder charges while the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office decides whether to retry him.

Thelma Swain and her husband, Harold Swain, were killed in 1985 at Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Camden County, Georgia. (WJXT TV)

Credit: WJXT TV

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Credit: WJXT TV

Perry’s attorneys filed a motion for Perry to be released immediately on bond. The judge hasn’t said when he’ll take up that issue.

Perry’s wife, Brenda, struggled Friday to balance the good news with the disappointment that she doesn’t yet know when her husband can come home.

“I don’t know how to be excited,” she said, starting to cry. She has known Perry most of her life, but they only married in 2009. For their entire relationship, all of their time together has been under watch of prison guards.

“We can’t even share [the ruling],” she said. “When he gets that news, he’s got to wait for them bring him a phone to call me.”

She’s also worried because of the coronavirus outbreak in the Coffee County prison where her husband is held.

A retrial of Perry would be extremely difficult, legal experts have said, because of the DNA evidence against previous suspect Erik Sparre, who has allegedly bragged about killing the couple through the years while referring to the them with a racial slur. The victims were Black; Sparre is white. Sparre, 57, of Brantley County, says he’s innocent.

A GBI task force has been reinvestigating the murders since May due to the DNA linking Sparre to hairs found in the hinge of a pair of glasses found next to the victims’ bodies. Perry’s attorneys with the Georgia Innocence Project and the King & Spalding law firm decided to do the DNA test after learning that reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that Sparre’s alibi could not be true.

“Today’s victory was hard-fought after teams of passionate lawyers, reporters, and investigators re-analyzed his case and each arrived at an inescapable conclusion: Dennis Perry is an innocent man,” Jennifer Whitfield, a Georgia Innocence Project attorney on Perry’s legal team, said in a statement.

“Dennis has spent over 20 years wrongfully imprisoned for crimes he did not commit,” Whitfield said. “We look forward to the day when we can join his family in welcoming him home.”

In tossing Perry’s 2003 conviction, the judge dealt a blow to the DA’s office, which has worked to keep Perry in prison. Prosecutors, including Chief Assistant District Attorney John B. Johnson III, have faced widespread criticism for fighting to uphold Perry’s conviction and attacking the emerging evidence against Sparre.

Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Spring Bluff was the site of the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain on March 11, 1985. TYSON HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM

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Johnson said Perry wasn’t entitled to challenge his conviction because, immediately after the jury convicted him in 2003, Johnson offered to take the death penalty off the table if Perry would waive his appeal rights. Perry agreed.

“I don’t care what anybody else says,” said the prosecutor. “A defendant agreed to not appeal, and we’re supposed to just roll over? No, our obligation is to investigate and to oppose the motion because we had an agreement.”

Scarlett said in Friday’s ruling that Perry waived his rights to an appeal — not a motion for a new trial. It would have been be a “miscarriage of justice” to prevent Perry from being heard on the motion. The judge characterized the evidence against Perry as “weak” compared to the new physical evidence on Sparre.

District Attorney Jackie Johnson said in a statement that she would wait for the conclusion of the GBI investigation to decide how to proceed in the case. “I am committed to the discovery of the truth,” she said, noting that she wasn’t the DA when Perry was convicted.

She didn’t immediately respond to an email asking if she would appeal the judge’s ruling.

Perry was convicted largely on the testimony of his ex-girlfriend’s mother, who said Perry had told her he planned to kill Harold Swain. The state failed to disclose to the defense at trial that the woman would be paid $12,000 in reward money for her testimony. Evidence of the payment wasn’t uncovered until 2018 when the “Undisclosed” podcast investigated the case.

Erik Sparre in a Facebook photo.

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His conviction happened even though the two original lead investigators on the case — former Camden County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Butch Kennedy and retired GBI agent Joe Gregory ― testified that they had cleared him in 1988 after a tipster mentioned his name. The detectives said they found that Perry was working in the Atlanta area on the day of the murders and couldn’t have made it to the church at the time of the killings.

Records from their efforts to investigate Perry, like so much other evidence in the case, had gone missing by the time of Perry’s trial.

Kennedy and Gregory were relieved to learn of the judge’s ruling Friday. “I’m thrilled that (Perry) can get a ray of sunshine,” said Kennedy, who has long blamed himself for not solving the case.

Sparre was a suspect briefly in 1986 after his first ex-wife’s family caught him on tape saying he killed the couple, police records show. His DNA wasn’t tested because DNA testing was in its infancy. Investigators dropped Sparre as a suspect because of his alibi that he was on the clock at a Brunswick Winn-Dixie.

But the AJC determined that the “manager” who called police to vouch for Sparre gave a fake name. The man who actually ran the store back then told the newspaper that he never spoke to police about the murders.

Georgia Innocence Project Executive Director Clare Gilbert said Perry’s case was indicative of larger problems in the criminal justice system.

“Barriers built into the system give the state the opportunity to delay and deflect when faced with unjust and unreliable convictions,” she said. “While we are celebrating with Dennis today, we still have a lot of work to do in Georgia.”