BRUNSWICK — Dennis Perry’s murder convictions fell into further doubt Monday as multiple witnesses testified that a previous suspect had bragged about committing the 1985 killings.

Perry, 58, is serving two life sentences for the killings of Harold and Thelma Swain, a beloved couple who were slain inside their Camden County church. Perry, who has been incarcerated for 20 years, has his case back in court thanks to a motion for new trial his attorneys filed after the emergence of DNA evidence tying the other suspect to the crime scene.

Erik Sparre, 57, was dropped as a suspect by police in 1986 because he had an alibi. But Perry's attorneys decided to conduct the DNA test that now ties him to the scene after reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that Sparre's alibi could not be true. The DNA test linking Sparre to hairs in a pair of glasses found inches from the bodies led Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson to ask the GBI to reopen the murder investigation, which is still ongoing.

Chad Head, the brother of Sparre's first wife, who died in 2013, testified that he remembered Sparre calling the family home in 1986spewing profanity and saying he killed the Swains. He also used a racial slur. The Swains were Black; Sparre, who has said he's innocent, is white. The words Head said he recalled were strikingly similar to those his family told police Sparre used in that back in 1986.

READ: “The Imperfect Alibi” | New clues in old church murder case

As police records indicate, Head said the call was recorded. He said they gave it to the Camden County Sheriff’s Office. The tape now is among a slew of other evidence from the case that has gone missing through the years.

Dennis Perry watched and listened remotely during a hearing for a new trial in the murder case in which he was found guilty two decades ago. RYON HORNE (AJC)

icon to expand image

Sparre’s second wife, Rhonda Tyson, testified that Sparre told her one day in the late 1980s that he killed the Swains.

“I was laying on the floor, he was straddling me with his hands on my throat,” Tyson testified. Then, according to Tyson, Sparre allegedly said: “I will kill you like I killed those n-words in the church in Camden County.” (Tyson claims Sparre didn’t censor himself on the n-word; she described him as racist.)

Andrew Ekonomou, who is representing the state against Perry, loudly questioned Tyson, asking why she hadn’t mentioned in a recent affidavit that Sparre said the murders he committed were in a church. In the affidavit, she said Sparre said he killed two Black people in Camden County, but not specifically where the killings took place. Ekonomou also questioned how Tyson responded when she claimed Sparre assaulted her.

“Why didn’t you go to the police (when) he assaulted you and he beat you up?” Ekonomou said.

Tyson said she had called the police before and they did nothing.

Throughout the hearing, Ekonomou repeatedly questioned why the hearing needed to happen at all. Ekonomou’s reasoning was that Perry had waived his appeal rights back in 2003 when he was convicted to escape the death penalty. That waiver from Perry meant he stands convicted without an opportunity to file the motion for new trial. The man who tried Perry and suggested he waive his appeals, Chief Assistant District Attorney John B. Johnson III, assisted Ekonomou in fighting Perry’s motion in court Monday.

Prosecutor John B. Johnson III heads back to his area during the hearing for Dennis Perry.  RYON HORNE (AJC)

icon to expand image

When Judge Stephen Scarlett said the hearing would go forward, Ekonomou, who also recently was part of President Donald Trump’s defense in the Russia investigation, said he planned to object to anything that wasn’t related to the new DNA evidence because the question before the court was not who killed the Swains. Instead, the narrow question the judge must decide is whether the DNA test linking Sparre to the scene would’ve resulted in a different verdict at Perry’s 2003 trial if it had been available at the time.

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

icon to expand image

Credit: WJXT TV

Sparre’s name never came up during that trial, evidently because of the alibi.

Philip Holladay of the King & Spalding law firm, which is representing Perry along with the Georgia Innocence Project, disagreed strongly with Ekonomou and said hearing available evidence was important.

“We all have a rare opportunity today,” Holladay said. “We can help end an innocent man and his family’s 20-plus-year nightmare and set the wheels for justice in motion. It has already been too long in coming.”

Perry was convicted in 2003 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.

The judge said he could rule in the case as early as Friday and that he would weigh the state’s argument that Perry can’t seek a new trial because of his appeal waiver.

Perry’s relatives were grateful for the hearing.

“The truth is important and (Perry’s attorneys) set forth new evidence to prove Dennis Perry is innocent,” said his cousin Suzanne Baugh. “The State seemed to be more concerned with saving face and defending lies rather than accepting scientific evidence or finding Harold and Thelma Swain’s real killer. We are confident that Dennis will come home soon, and have his name cleared.”