‘Right a wrong’: Judge exonerates man in 1985 Georgia church murders

Dennis Perry spoke to the news media after a judge exonerated him in a 1985 Georgia church murders cases on July 19, 2020 in Brunswick, Georgia. Perry's wife, Brenda, has her hand on his shoulder. (Joshua Sharpe / AJC)
Caption
Dennis Perry spoke to the news media after a judge exonerated him in a 1985 Georgia church murders cases on July 19, 2020 in Brunswick, Georgia. Perry's wife, Brenda, has her hand on his shoulder. (Joshua Sharpe / AJC)

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Dennis Perry spent 20 years in prison

BRUNSWICK — Before the hearing, Dennis Perry, seated at the defense table with his attorneys, turned around to look at his wife in the front row. Plexiglass separated them, a COVID-19 precaution, but through the smudges and reflections Perry’s wife could see him twist his fingers into a heart.

The couple smiled, anticipating the good news.

Brunswick District Attorney Keith Higgins, who took office in January, had called the hearing to formally exonerate Perry in the 1985 murders of a couple in their rural church. Perry had been released after 20 years of incarceration in July 2020 after DNA evidence tied another suspect to the crime scene. But as is standard, he still faced the original indictment, meaning he could be tried again.

On Monday afternoon, Higgins rose and told the court he was there to “right a wrong.” In 2003, Perry had been convicted of the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain, a beloved couple in their 60s, who were shot when a white man stopped by their historic Black church on March 11, 1985.

Higgins said the evidence makes him believe Perry is innocent. He cited DNA linking the other suspect, Erik Sparre, to the scene as well as Sparre’s alleged admissions that he committed the murders. Sparre allegedly has bragged about the murders while referring to the couple by a racial slur, according to police and court records. The Swains were Black; Sparre is white.

After deciding against retrying Perry, Higgins said he met with relatives of the Swains.

“They gave me their blessing and their approval to bring this motion,” Higgins said.

Explore“The Imperfect Alibi” — the AJC’s award-winning special report on the case

Judge Stephen Scarlett, who threw out Perry’s convictions and allowed his release on bond last year, quickly agreed to allow Higgins to drop the charges against Perry.

Then Perry stood to speak to the court. He shuffled his written remarks, in a manila folder, and drew a hard breath.

“After what happened to me, I lost faith in the justice system. I’m sure you can understand that,” Perry said.

Perry was arrested in 2000 after a cold case investigation. In 2003, he was convicted in a trial during which the state violated his rights by withholding information from his attorneys.

The prosecution, led by John B. Johnson III, didn’t reveal that the star witness against Perry would be paid a $12,000 reward for her testimony that Perry told her he planned to kill Harold Swain. The woman was the mother of Perry’s ex-girlfriend. The original investigators on the murders had, in 1988, found that Perry had a strong alibi.

Caption
Georgia - 09-03-20 Dennis Perry on the side of the road near the Satilla River, where he grew up fishing.(Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

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

Georgia - 09-03-20 Dennis Perry on the side of the road near the Satilla River, where he grew up fishing.(Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)
Caption
Georgia - 09-03-20 Dennis Perry on the side of the road near the Satilla River, where he grew up fishing.(Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

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

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

Perry fought his conviction unsuccessfully until last year when the DNA evidence emerged linking Sparre to the scene. Perry’s attorneys with the Georgia Innocence Project and the King & Spalding law firm decided to conduct the DNA test after reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that Sparre’s alibi couldn’t have been true.

Even after this revelation, DA Jackie Johnson — who was defeated by Higgins in the November election — and her office sought to keep Perry in prison. She said she was waiting for the conclusion of the renewed GBI investigation into the murders. The investigation is ongoing. Sparre, who says he’s innocent, hasn’t been charged.

Perry said he prayed for justice.

“I pray every day for justice for Harold and Thelma Swain. God bless you,” he said.

“Well said,” the judge said. “That concludes this matter.”

Applause and cheering swelled from the courtroom gallery. Eyes turned red and wet. Perry leaned over to hug his longtime attorney Jennifer Whitfield.

In a moment, Perry was walking down the courthouse steps, one arm slung over his wife Brenda Perry, one slung over Whitfield. They cried together.

ExploreRead AJC's full coverage of the 1985 South Georgia church murder case

On the courthouse steps, Perry read more from the manila folder. He told a group of reporters how much he’d lost, how he never got to have kids of his own, how in prison he lost his grandmother and both parents, and friends, and so much else he will forever clutch for in the wind.

“It was all taken from me,” he said. “At this time in my life, I should be able to have my finances in order so my wife and I can think about retirement. Instead, I have no income. My health is no good, and I must start all over again. I am grateful this part of the nightmare is behind me. Yet I will deal every day with what happened to me.”

Perry thought of his parents and his grandma, how they were missing this. He closed his eyes, turned his face into the sun: “I wish you was here today.”


OUR REPORTING

After Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Joshua Sharpe uncovered 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, but now is formally exonerated, with the case against him dropped Monday.

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.