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Judge Drops Charges Against Man Convicted of 1985 Double Murder Inside Church After More Than 20 Years in Prison

Dennis Perry and his family speak to reporters after his conviction was overturned.

Dennis Perry and his family speak to reporters after his conviction was overturned.

A 59-year-old Georgia man who spent 20 years in prison for the 1985 double murder of a deacon and his wife inside their rural church was formally exonerated on Monday following the discovery of new DNA evidence in the case, News4Jax reported.

Dennis Perry had been accused of fatally shooting Deacon Harold Swain and wife Thelma Swain in the vestibule of Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Camden County on March 11, 1985. Law enforcement authorities arrested Perry for the homicides in 2000 and secured a guilty plea from him in 2003 in exchange for not pursuing the death penalty. As part of that, Perry waived his right to appeal. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.

However, after new, potentially exonerating DNA evidence came to light last year, Perry’s attorneys moved for a new trial. The motion was granted in June 2020 over the objection of then-Glynn County District Attorney John B. Johnson III who sought to hold Perry to his earlier plea agreement. A 2020 investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that Johnson “had improperly withheld evidence he was legally required to share with the defense in multiple cases.”

But newly elected DA Keith Higgins on Monday told Glynn County Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett Sr. that his office reviewed the case in consultation with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and came to the conclusion that the charges against Perry should be dropped.

“There is evidence Dennis Perry did not commit the crimes that are alleged. The DNA profile derived from mitochondrial DNA analysis of hairs that were recovered from a pair of eyeglasses at the crime scene does not match the DNA profile of Dennis Perry,” the district attorney’s office wrote in a motion filed with the court last week, according to a report from local NBC-affiliate First Coast News. “Instead, the DNA profile derived from the hairs matches the DNA profile of another suspect in the case. The other suspect has made admissions that he committed the crimes. Based on this evidence, the State declines to prosecute.”

Judge Scarlett agreed, formally dismissing the murder charges against Perry on Monday after more than two decades.

Higgins said that he had spoken with the families of the victims prior to deciding to dismiss the charges against Perry.

According to the News4Jax report, in March 2020 the Georgia Innocence Project obtained a hair sample from Gladys Sparre, the mother of Erik Sparre, who had been a prime suspect in the case. The sample, which was given to the group voluntarily, “turned a perfect match for hairs in a pair of glasses found inches from the bodies of the Swains.” The test also excluded Perry as a possible match for the hair sample.

Perry had also been unaware that, at the time he agreed to plead guilty, the GBI agent in charge of the case had said it was “virtually impossible” for him to have committed the murder in Camden County when he didn’t leave his job in Atlanta until 5:30 p.m.

Following Monday’s hearing, Perry said he hoped the real killer is found and justice is served.

“It took a long time, but I never gave up,” Perry said, per News4Jax. “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. This indictment has been hanging over my head for over 20 years, and it’s such a relief to finally not have to worry about being accused of this awful thing.”

Attorney and Georgia Innocence Project board member Page Pate told First Coast News that the ruling was “huge.”

“It has taken a long time. Decades ago this crime was committed. They pursued Mr. Perry, despite the fact that the evidence against him was shaky for decades, and they locked him up for what now appears to be a crime he did not commit for over 20 years in prison,” he told the outlet. “But the DNA that’s recently shown that he was not there, he was not involved, certainly opens the case back up. And instead of requiring that they first convict somebody who actually committed the crime, the D.A. in Brunswick, our new district attorney, simply decided that it was no longer fair or just to pursue a case against Dennis Perry. The evidence is simply not there.”

[image via YouTube/First Coast News screengrab]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.