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(Reuters) - On a March evening 36 years ago, a white man walked into a predominately Black Baptist church in southeast Georgia and asked to speak with Harold Swain, a 66-year-old deacon who was attending a Bible study session with 10 other people.
The two men struggled in the church vestibule. The unknown man shot Swain, and when Swain’s wife Thelma came to his aid, he shot her, too.
The double murderer fled, leaving behind a pair of glasses but few other clues. Potential motives were equally elusive.
Dennis Perry served 20 years in prison for the crime, which he always maintained he did not commit. He was vindicated on July 19, when with the assistance of lawyers from King & Spalding and the Georgia Innocence Project, he was fully exonerated.
For their work in correcting a profound miscarriage of justice, Perry’s legal team including now-retired King & Spalding partner Phil Holladay, partners Susan Clare, Josh Toll and Philip Green, and partner Pete Robinson, who died on July 1 after a brief battle with cancer, are Legal Action’s Pro Bono Heroes for the month of July.
“Every lawyer who goes to law school one day hopes to help someone the justice system has failed,” Holladay said. “It took way too long, but the justice system finally got it right.”
To Clare, winning exoneration for an innocent man represents “the epitome of being a lawyer,” she said. “I’m so thrilled and happy for Dennis and his family that this nightmare has come to an end.”
The original detectives investigating the case, featured on the television shows “Unsolved Mysteries,” “Crime Watch” and “Prime Suspect,” chased down hundreds of tips but came up empty handed.
While several witnesses at the church got a glimpse of the killer, their vague descriptions were not enough for police to home in on a perpetrator.
The case went cold, until 13 years later, when the Camden County sheriff allegedly promised former deputy Dale Bundy a full-time job if he could solve the case.
Within a week, Bundy settled on Perry as the only suspect among the hundreds who had been investigated.
The prosecution’s “star witness” was the mother of one of Perry’s ex-girlfriends, Clare told me, and was paid $12,000 in exchange for her testimony. Perry’s defense counsel was not informed of the reward.
“It was clear prosecutorial misconduct,” Clare said.
The woman believed that her daughter’s former boyfriend looked like the composite drawing of the suspect. She said Perry privately told her that he tried to borrow money from a Black man, whom she believed to be Harold Swain. The woman testified that Perry said Swain laughed at him, and that he was going to kill the man, using a racial epithet.
The defense countered that Perry had an alibi: He was at work in the Atlanta area on the day of the murders and could not have made it to the church, which was more than 250 miles away in Waverly, Georgia, in time to commit the crime. He didn’t even have a car. His lawyers also suggested that another man was the real killer.
The jury didn’t buy it. Perry, then 38, was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences and imprisoned in March 2003. In exchange for being spared the death penalty, he waived his right to file a direct appeal.
So what about the glasses left at the crime scene? Perry didn’t wear glasses, and DNA analysis of hairs found on them excluded him. But the hairs also excluded the man whom the defense was trying to pin the crime on.
“As a result, both the State and Mr. Perry were left with no explanation other than ‘who knows’ as to the presence of the glasses at the scene and their owner,” wrote lawyers from King & Spalding and the Georgia Innocence Project in a motion for a new trial.
Of course, there was another answer: The hairs didn’t belong to Perry or the man that defense counsel suspected because neither of them was the real killer.
The Georgia Innocence Project took up Perry's case and recruited King & Spalding as co-counsel in 2018.
Defense counsel got a break that year when the case became the focus of the “Undisclosed” podcast’s third season. A team of investigative reporters led by Susan Simpson uncovered promising leads. Joshua Sharpe of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution took the probe even further, focusing on an overlooked suspect whose original alibi may have been fabricated.
Georgia Innocence Project investigator Ron Grosse then collected DNA evidence from the suspect's mother. It was a match.
The new evidence “is so material that it seems unlikely the State would have prosecuted Mr. Perry had these test results been known at the time,” Perry’s lawyers wrote in their motion for a new trial. “Instead, the State almost certainly would have directed its efforts towards building a case around these DNA test results, which link another suspect, Erik Sparre, to these murders.”
Sparre has not been charged with any crimes.
Last year, Brunswick Judicial Circuit Judge Stephen Scarlett granted Perry a new trial.
Rather than re-try the case, Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins agreed to dismiss all charges against Perry, and on July 19, the judge approved the motion.
“There are times when seeking justice means righting a wrong,” Higgins, who took office Jan. 1, 2021, said in a written statement. “While this case was prosecuted prior to my administration, the new evidence indicates that someone else murdered Harold and Thelma Swain.”
As for Perry, he said in a press release: “I knew that eventually someone else would see the truth, and I’m so grateful to the Georgia Innocence Project and King & Spalding for bringing the truth to light.”
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