Bill filed to pay man wrongfully jailed 20 years in Ga. church murders

Dennis Perry on the side of the road near the Satilla River, where he grew up fishing.(Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

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Dennis Perry on the side of the road near the Satilla River, where he grew up fishing.(Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

A judge freed Dennis Perry in July 2020

Dennis Perry thought of what the money could do and he started to cry.

He wasn’t thinking of it making up for the 20 years he spent in prison for a double murder he didn’t commit. Money couldn’t do that. But money could help Perry, 60, build his wife a house. She’s been living with her mother and an ever expanding extended family for 15 years.

“Coming to see me for 13 years, I know it took a lot of toll on her,” said Perry, who knew his wife since childhood but fell in love with her in telephone calls and supervised prison visits. “I just want her to have something she can call hers, that we can call ours.”

It could happen if Georgia lawmakers agree. The resolution would to pay Perry $1.4 million. The authors — four Republican, two Democratic lawmakers — said the compensation would help Perry recover from all he endured before his July 2020 release.

Perry’s attorneys at the King & Spalding law firm say the money is “vital” for Perry to rebuild his life.

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Dennis and Brenda Perry (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com

Dennis and Brenda Perry (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com

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Dennis and Brenda Perry (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com

Credit: Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com

Harold and Thelma Swain, a beloved couple in their 60s, were shot in the vestibule of Rising Daughter Baptist Church. A man had stopped by asking to speak to Harold Swain, though not by name. The men spoke and a struggle ensued, followed by gunshots. Thelma Swain was shot when she ran to her husband’s aid.

Perry, who was cleared by the original investigators in 1988, was arrested in 2000 after a cold case investigation. He was convicted in 2003 during a trial in which the state violated his rights by withholding information from his attorneys. The prosecution didn’t reveal that the star witness against Perry would be paid a $12,000 reward for her testimony.

The GBI reopened the investigation into the Swains’ killings in May 2020 after DNA linked former suspect Erik Sparre to a pair of glasses found inches from the victims’ bodies inside the church. Perry’s attorneys with the Georgia Innocence Project and King & Spalding had decided to conduct the DNA test after learning that reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed Sparre’s alibi for the night of the murders could not be true. That alibi had led investigators to drop him as a suspect in 1986 even though his ex-wife’s family contacted authorities to say he had bragged about killing the Swains while referring to the couple by a racial slur. Sparre went on to tell more people his alleged involvement with the crime, according to police and court records.

Sparre says he’s innocent. He hasn’t been charged.

The GBI turned over its investigation to Brunswick Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins on July 1, 2021. Through a spokeswoman, Higgins declined to comment this week except to say the case was still under review.

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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

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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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

Higgins has said publicly that he doesn’t believe Perry committed the murders, citing evidence against Sparre.

Since his release, Perry hasn’t been able to work due to health concerns.

Georgia has no special process to compensate people who’ve been wrongfully convicted. A person must win the ear of a lawmaker who’s willing to put forth a resolution to pay them with state dollars. Such resolutions sometimes don’t pass as lawmakers argue over the facts of cases and what’s just.

“It is time for reform,” said Clare Gilbert, executive director of Georgia Innocence Project, which represented Perry in his criminal case. “The current process was not designed to compensate the wrongfully convicted and, as a result, can be inefficient and arbitrary — often failing to fairly and adequately compensate people for the years they spent imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.”

Other compensation bills previously have stretched payment out over years, with installments. The resolution for Perry, as currently written, is for a one time payment.

“I hope it goes through, I pray it does,” Perry said.


OUR REPORTING

After Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporting found issues with the alibi of a previous suspect, lawyers representing Dennis Perry, the man convicted of the double murder, decided to conduct a DNA test. DNA found at the scene matched that of the old suspect, the lawyers said. The GBI has reopened the murder investigation and formed a task force. On July 17, 2020, the DNA results led a judge to overturn Perry’s conviction. Perry was released on bond July 23, 2020.

WATCH THE DOCUMENTARY

“The Imperfect Alibi” is an Emmy award-winning, crime-based documentary by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution based on Joshua Sharpe’s investigative work. Watch it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHILRPczvbQ