DA plans to exonerate man convicted in South Georgia church murders

Dennis Perry's convictions were overturned last July, allowing for his release days later after serving 20 years.
Caption
Dennis Perry's convictions were overturned last July, allowing for his release days later after serving 20 years.

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

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

On Monday, the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office intends to formally exonerate a man convicted in the 1985 murders of a couple inside their rural church.

Dennis Perry’s convictions were overturned last July, allowing for his release from prison days later after serving 20 years. When his 2003 convictions were overturned, the case, as any in Georgia would, remained open with Perry still facing his original indictment.

In a Friday court filing, DA Keith Higgins, who won his position in the November 2020 election, said the evidence doesn’t support a case against Perry, particularly because a DNA test in 2020 tied another suspect to the crime scene.

“The other suspect made admissions that he committed the crime,” Higgins wrote, requesting a hearing. “Based on this evidence, the State declines to prosecute.”

The judge in the case must sign off on Higgins’ motion to drop the case, but the court took a similar position in throwing out the jury’s verdicts.

Explore'The Imperfect Alibi': Our award-winning special report on the case

The hearing, set for 2 p.m. Monday in Brunswick, will stand as the latest development in a long and painful case.

Harold and Thelma Swain, a beloved couple in their 60s, were shot in the vestibule of Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Camden County. On March 11, 1985, a white man showed up at the Monday night Bible study at the historic Black church and asked to speak to Harold Swain.

Swain went to speak with the man at the front door. Moments later, congregants in the sanctuary heard a struggle, then gunshots. Thelma Swain went to help her husband but fell with him, both shot in the chest.

Perry was arrested in 2000 after a cold case investigation and 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 woman, who was the mother of Perry’s ex-girlfriend, claimed Perry told her in passing that he intended to kill Harold Swain. The original investigators on the murders had, in 1988, found that Perry had a strong alibi.

The GBI reopened the investigation into the Swains’ killings in May 2020 at the request of then-District Attorney Jackie Johnson. She had learned six weeks earlier that DNA linked former suspect Erik Sparre to a pair of glasses found inches from the victims’ bodies inside the church. Johnson and her assistant district attorneys — including John B. Johnson III, who sent Perry to prison — fought to keep Perry incarcerated in spite of the DNA.

Perry’s attorneys with the Georgia Innocence Project and the King & Spalding law firm 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, 57, of Brantley County, has not been charged and says he’s innocent. The GBI investigation continues.

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.

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