NICHOLLS, Ga. — After 20 years behind bars, Dennis Perry waited Thursday for guards to open the prison gate. On the other side, his wife of 11 years stood. The husband and wife stared at each other through the fence.

With a loud clank, the gate unlocked, and Perry raised his left arm in celebration. Cheers rose from loved ones and attorneys in the parking lot. Without speaking, the husband and wife embraced in a long hug while others applauded.

“Two years ago, I told my wife I was going to pray myself out of here,” Perry said moments later. “And that’s what I’ve done.”

Credit: Ryon Horne and Tyson Horne / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A Georgia man left prison Thursday on a signature bond after winning a bid for a new trial in a 1985 Georgia church murder in which he has always said he was in

Credit: Ryon Horne and Tyson Horne / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Perry was arrested in 2000 and later convicted of the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain, who were shot inside their church in rural Camden County in 1985. Perry’s convictions were overturned last week because of new DNA evidence linking a former suspect to the crime scene. Perry has maintained his innocence.

Perry walked free on the steamy, cloudy afternoon due to recent court rulings in his favor. Brunswick Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett, who tossed the 2003 convictions, granted Perry a signature bond to be released Thursday. With the convictions vacated, Perry now faces the original murder charges while the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office decides whether to retry him.

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The DA’s office, which fought to keep Perry in prison despite mounting evidence that he’s innocent, has said it is waiting for the GBI to complete its renewed investigation into the murders.

The GBI reopened the investigation into the Swains’ killings in May at the request of 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 Rising Daughter Baptist Church.

Perry’s attorneys 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 after his ex-wife’s family contacted authorities to say that he had bragged about killing the Swains while referring to the couple by a racial slur. The victims were Black; Sparre is white.

Sparre, 57, of Brantley County, says he’s innocent.

Erik Sparre in a Facebook photo.
Erik Sparre in a Facebook photo.

Chief Assistant District Attorney John B. Johnson III, who sent Perry to prison, has faced widespread criticism for fighting to uphold Perry’s conviction and attacking the emerging evidence against Sparre. Johnson argued Perry shouldn’t have been allowed to file his recent motion for new trial, which was based on the DNA, because Perry waived his appeals to escape the death penalty.

But court records show Perry didn’t waive his rights to all legal options. Even if he had, the judge said, it would be a “miscarriage of justice” to not allow Perry to file for a new trial.

On Thursday morning, a different prosecutor told the judge the state didn’t oppose bond but did request that Perry be banished from Camden County. Perry’s family had worried about such a request — because the family home is in the county.

“He’s not going to be banished,” Scarlett said.

Credit: Ryon Horne / Ryon.Horne@ajc.com and Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Judge grant bond, frees man convicted in Ga. church murders

Credit: Ryon Horne / Ryon.Horne@ajc.com and Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

In the parking lot of the Glynn County courthouse, Perry’s wife, Brenda Perry, fought tears while listening to the bond hearing via livestream on a cellphone. The hearing was virtual due to the coronavirus. She was joined by about two dozen relatives, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who all strained to hear what the attorneys were saying through the phone’s speaker.

Jennifer Whitfield of the Georgia Innocence Project told the judge about Dennis Perry’s character. In 20 years of wrongful imprisonment, she said, Perry could have become bitter or angry. But he resisted and held to hope, prayer and family. Perry, whose grandchildren call him “Papa Sunshine,” stayed involved in their lives through telephone calls and supervised visits, always under the watch of prison guards.

After the judge said Dennis Perry could be released, Brenda Perry turned to one of the grandchildren. “We can go get Papa Sunshine today,” she said.

The boy, Bubba, 8, said: “There’s only one thing I have to say: hallelujah.”

“God is good,” said the grandmother.

A few hours later outside the prison, Perry said freedom felt better than he’d even imagined.

“It feels good to be free,” he said. He said he’d always believed the truth would be revealed.

Perry was convicted 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, who has since died, would be paid $12,000 in reward money for her testimony.

The DNA of Sparre, the previous suspect, wasn’t tested when authorities were first looking into him because DNA testing was in its infancy in the mid-1980s. Investigators dropped him as a suspect because of his alibi that he was on the clock at a Brunswick Winn-Dixie. But late last year, the AJC determined that the “manager” who called police to vouch for Sparre apparently gave a fake name. The man who actually ran the store back then said he never spoke to police about the murders.

After Dennis Perry’s release, his attorneys at the Georgia Innocence Project and the King & Spalding law firm called on the DA’s office to “do the right thing” and drop the case against him. “We hope that Dennis Perry’s nightmare will soon be over and that everyone impacted by this tragic and unjust case can begin the process of healing and recovery.”

In the prison parking lot, Dennis Perry climbed in a relative’s car. His wife had brought him what he requested: boiled peanuts and sweet tea.

Before he dug in, he laughed at the thought of such a treat.

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