There is DNA evidence that suggests someone other than Sandeep “Sonny” Bharadia may have sexually assaulted a special ed teacher in her apartment.
Yet the Georgia Supreme Court ruled Monday that because the Stone Mountain man’s legal team didn’t try to obtain the DNA evidence before trial, they can’t use the evidence now as a basis for granting Bharadia a new one. Tests have since determined that DNA found on gloves worn by the assailant belonged to an acquaintance of Bharadia’s who struck a deal with prosecutors and testified for the state.
Bharadia, 41, is serving a sentence of life in prison without parole.
“The bottom line is there is an innocent man in prison and he’s there because of a procedural issue,” said Aimee Maxwell, executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project. “This is not about the evidence, it’s about whether we can get a court to listen so we can get him out.”
The assault occurred on Nov. 18, 2001, when the teacher returned from church to her apartment in Thunderbolt, a Savannah suburb. A man wearing distinctive blue-and-white gloves emerged from behind a door. He put a knife to her throat and said he’d kill her if she did anything stupid.
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He blindfolded her, bound her and then committed aggravated sodomy and aggravated sexual battery, prosecutors said. There were times, she said, when she could see him from under her blindfold. He left with her computer, jewelry and camera.
Police caught a break when they found the stolen items, the knife and the gloves inside a bag in a house in Savannah. The homeowner said her boyfriend, Sterling Flint, had brought them there.
Flint was charged with Bharadia, but only Bharadia was accused of sexual assault. Before trial, Flint, who admitted being at the scene, struck a deal. He pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property and testified against Bharadia.
Bharadia testified he was in Atlanta on the day of the attack working on a friend’s car. A witness backed up his alibi, saying Bharadia came to her house to borrow tools, left around noon and returned six hours later.
The victim was initially shown a photo lineup of six men and circled photos of Flint and another man, saying they looked familiar. But later, when shown another lineup, she stopped at one photo and said she was sure this was the guy. It was Bharadia.
“Without any doubt whatsoever,” she later testified at trial. “Those are his eyes. I’ll never forget them.”
A year after Bharadia’s conviction, tests determined the DNA from skin cells found on the gloves didn’t belong to Bharadia. Eight years later, the Georgia Innocence Project obtained an order to have that DNA profile run through a national database that contains the results of samples collected from inmates.
In April 2012, the GBI found a match: the DNA belonged to Flint.
On Monday, writing for a unanimous court, Justice Robert Benham said that in order to obtain a new trial, Bharadia had to clear a number of hurdles. These include showing that newly discovered evidence had come forward since the trial and that, before trial, his lawyer had been diligent in trying to find it.
Bharadia’s defense team knew the gloves existed and could be tested before the 2003 trail, Benham said. “Once the results showed the DNA was not a match for Bharadia, he could have requested, prior to trial, the DNA testing of his co-defendant … to determine if the DNA was a match to him.”
Instead, Bharadia waited for more than a year after trial to request the test, Benham said.
“He avoided the risk that pre-trial DNA test results from the gloves would implicate him in the crimes and waited until after his trial and conviction to request these initial results, at which time he would have been no worse off by a positive test result,” the opinion said.
Maxwell, of the Georgia Innocence Project, said it was Bharadia’s lawyer who chose not to have the gloves tested. “There is no way Sonny would have said, ‘Don’t test the DNA,’” she said. “That’s because Sonny would have known his DNA wasn’t going to be there.”