A Georgia couple was killed in church 35 years ago, and a man sits in prison convicted of their murder. Is he the right guy? Join us for the premiere of an AJC Documentary: The Imperfect Alibi (Ryon Horne)

GBI fast-tracks church murders case over wrongful conviction concerns

The GBI created a task force this week to investigate a decades-old double murder because of doubts about the conviction of the man who has served 20 years for the killings.

Harold and Thelma Swain were gunned down in 1985 during Bible study at Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Camden County. Dennis Perry, who’s maintained his innocence, was found guilty of murder in 2003. He waived his appeal rights to escape the death penalty.

Reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently deepened questions about Perry’s conviction and led to a new DNA test, which ties a previous suspect to the crime scene. Last month, officials decided in a rare move to reopen the investigation.

GBI Director Vic Reynolds said Tuesday he created the task force to fast-track the case after the publication of an investigative report by the paper last week.

“There’s nothing any worse than the potential of somebody innocent in prison – nothing,” Reynolds said.

» SPECIAL PRESENTATION: “The Imperfect Alibi”

» FULL COVERAGE: The Rising Daughter investigation

The task force is made up of six agents from around the state and one crime analyst. The approach is the same the GBI took in May while investigating the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger who was shot near Brunswick after being confronted by a white father and son. Less than two days after forming that task force, the GBI charged Travis and Gregory McMichael with murder. (William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor, was later also charged.)

Also like the Arbery case, the church murders are in the jurisdiction of Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who has been criticized for handling of both cases. Johnson’s office knew about the new DNA evidence for six weeks before asking the GBI to step in, according to Perry’s attorneys at the Georgia Innocence Project and the King & Spalding law firm.

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

Five legal experts — including former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears — have said Perry’s recent motion for new trial based on the DNA is enough for him to be released from prison now unless the state has compelling evidence to refute the DNA results.

The DNA ties Erik Sparre to a pair of glasses found inches from the victims’ bodies. Sparre, who was dropped as a suspect in 1986 on the basis of his alibi, said in recent interviews that he is innocent.

The Swains, who were black, were killed after an unknown white man entered the church and became involved in a struggle with Harold Swain, 66. According to a police report, Sparre’s ex-wife’s family let an investigator hear a tape of a man they said was Sparre, who had been calling with threats: “I’m the motherf----- that killed the two n------ in that church,” the man said.

The ex-wife also said Sparre “hated blacks” and had a pair of beat-up glasses. An investigator showed her three pairs and asked if any looked like Sparre’s. She picked the pair from the church.

The original investigators on the case dropped Sparre as a suspect after a man claiming to be Sparre’s boss called to say Sparre had been at work on the night of the murders. The AJC determined many details in the police document about the alibi couldn’t be true.

Sparre, who recently told the AJC to stop contacting him, has said he doesn’t know where the church is and couldn’t explain the DNA results.

Atlanta Constitution clipping from 1985 about the murder of Harold and Thelma Swaine at Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Waverly, Ga.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The test compared DNA taken from Sparre’s mother to DNA in the hairs found at the scene. The results show that the hairs in the glasses belonged to someone from Sparre’s maternal line, according to Perry’s motion for new trial. A DNA test before the trial showed Perry didn’t match the hairs.

Perry was convicted largely on the testimony of his ex-girlfriend’s mother, who said Perry had told her he was going to kill Harold Swain because Swain had laughed in his face when Perry asked for money. The state didn’t tell the defense that the witness would be paid $12,000 in reward money for her testimony, according to Perry’s attorneys. A document confirming the payment was uncovered by the “Undisclosed” podcast, which covered the case in 2018.

A South Georgia couple were killed in church 35 years ago, and a man sits in prison convicted of their murder. Is he the right guy? If not, who is? Journey with us as a single journalist sheds light on a case many believed was over, settled, solved. (Directed by Ryon Horne, Story by Joshua Sharpe, Produced by Tyson Horne and Sandra Brown)

Perry’s attorneys have also filed a habeas corpus petition, arguing that Perry’s conviction was the result of “multiple flagrant violations” of his constitutional rights. The state is represented in the habeas by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office. The AG’s office recently asked a judge to put the case on hold while the motion for new trial and GBI investigation are pending, a delay that Perry’s attorneys are arguing against.

“Dennis Perry has already spent more than 20 years in prison for crimes he did not commit,” the attorneys wrote.

The GBI director said Perry’s long detention and the possibility that he’s innocent spurred the newly accelerated investigation. Reynolds said agents are already on the ground investigating. He said Sparre could be charged if the evidence supports it.

“I told (the agents) the same thing I told them in the Arbery case: wherever the evidence takes us, let’s go” Reynolds said. “If the evidence points to the individual incarcerated, then so be it. If it points to somebody else, so be it.”

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