Man who says he’s innocent of Ga. church murders may get parole

Rising Daughter Baptist Church was the site of the stunning murders of Harold and Thelma Swain on March 11, 1985. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Rising Daughter Baptist Church was the site of the stunning murders of Harold and Thelma Swain on March 11, 1985. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Dennis Perry's fate remains in limbo as he waits for various agencies and officials to decide whether he was wrongfully convicted of a double murder in South Georgia.

But the 58-year-old had more reason to hope this week after learning that the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles had tentatively granted him parole. The decision means, unless board members change their minds, he will be released around the start of September.

The board’s tentative decision means the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted him, has 90 days to share an opinion. The clock started on June 3, when the board made its decision.

This year is the first that Perry has been eligible for parole because state law required him to serve 20 years before being considered. He was arrested in January 2000 in the 1985 killings of Harold and Thelma Swain, who were gunned down inside their Camden County church during a Bible study.

» SPECIAL PRESENTATION: “The Imperfect Alibi”

It isn’t clear whether doubts about Perry’s conviction played a role in the parole decision. Board members don’t disclose the reasoning behind such decisions and each member may have different considerations. Before making decisions, the board reviews inmates’ case files, which include information about the crimes they’re convicted of as well as statements from people who know them and, if included, evidence suggesting the incarcerated person is innocent.

Dennis Perry has been in prison for nearly 20 years for the deaths of Harold and Thelma Swain in Camden County in 1985.
Dennis Perry has been in prison for nearly 20 years for the deaths of Harold and Thelma Swain in Camden County in 1985.

Credit: Ga Dept. of Corrections

Credit: Ga Dept. of Corrections

In this case, the board would've seen that his attorneys filed an extraordinary motion for new trial in April because a DNA test completed in March had connected a different suspect to the crime scene. After the DNA revelation, the GBI has created a task force to reinvestigate the murders. It isn't clear when the agents will finish their work. Because of the uncertain timeline, the District Attorney's Office sought unsuccessfully to delay a July 13 hearing on Perry's motion for new trial.

"The state cannot, in good faith, take a position on Perry's extraordinary motion for new trial or respond to it until the GBI has completed its investigation," Assistant District Attorney Andrew Ekonomou wrote in a court filing. Ekonomou has prosecuted high profile cases for the DA's office through the years, but he rose to more prominence in 2018 when he was added to President Donald Trump's legal team in the Russia investigation.

Perry’s attorneys persuaded Brunswick Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett against postponing the hearing during a Wednesday morning call, which wasn’t open to the public.

The attorneys had explained their opposition to delaying the hearing in a court filing Tuesday. Urgency is needed, they said, as a COVID-19 outbreak ravages Coffee Correctional Facility where Perry is held in South Georgia. As of the latest figures, the prison has 177 confirmed cases among inmates — more than double the number of any other Georgia prison.

» FULL COVERAGE: The Rising Daughter investigation

“Mr. Perry appreciates the time and resources being spent by the GBI to aggressively and thoroughly re-investigate the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain, and is hopeful that the investigation ultimately will lead to the prosecution and conviction of the murderer,” the attorneys from the Georgia Innocence Project and the King & Spalding law firm added. “But whether or not the GBI’s investigation leads to that outcome is not the legal issue currently before the court.”

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

Credit: WJXT TV

What is before the court is whether the DNA evidence linking another suspect to the crime scene would have led to a different verdict if the jury had known about it during Perry’s 2003 trial.

The jury didn’t know about it, because police dropped Erik Sparre as a suspect in 1986 based on his alibi that he was on the clock at a Brunswick Winn-Dixie when the Swains died on March 11, 1985. DNA testing wasn’t common in the mid-80s or police might have checked his DNA against hairs found in the hinge of a pair of glasses found near the bodies. Perry’s attorneys decided to test Sparre’s DNA after learning that reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution uncovered problems with Sparre’s alibi.

The test compared DNA taken from Sparre’s mother to DNA in hairs from the scene. (Perry’s DNA was tested before his 2003 trial and he didn’t match.) The results show that the hairs in the glasses belonged to someone from Sparre’s maternal line, the April court filing says. Sparre, who has told The AJC that he is innocent, is the only person in his maternal line to have allegedly told multiple people he killed the couple, including his first and second wives, who both came forward to authorities 10 years apart to reveal his alleged admissions. Both ex-wives described Sparre, a white man, as holding deep hatred for Black people, a claim Sparre denies. The Swains were Black.

In Perry’s Tuesday filing, his attorneys said they have also spoken with “a number” of witnesses whose statements about Sparre “only further inculpate Mr. Sparre in the Swains’ murders.” Some of those people have also spoken with the GBI.

GBI Director Vic Reynolds said Tuesday he couldn’t give a timeline on when the investigation will conclude, but he said agents are working with urgency.