BRUNSWICK, Ga. – A South Georgia man who has spent the past 20 years behind bars was released from prison Thursday afternoon. The same judge that overturned the conviction of Dennis Perry in the killing of a married couple in a Camden County church has ordered Perry freed on his own recognizance pending a retrial.
“I said I was going to pray my way out of here,” Perry said as he walked out of the Coffee County Correctional Facility. “That’s what I have done..
Perry was arrested in 2000 and convicted in 2003 in the killing of deacon Harold Swain and his wife, Thelma in 1985.
Perry’s family, who watched the virtual bond hearing on their phones from outside the Glynn County Courthouse, cheered when they heard the news. His wife and first cousin got to speak with Perry on the phone immediately after the hearing, then headed for the prison to take Perry home.
Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett decided Friday to grant Perry a new trial in the shooting deaths of a husband and wife after new DNA evidence linked the crime to another man -- Camden County detectives’ first suspect in the case.
Perry’s attorneys immediately filed a motion for Perry to be released.
Thursday morning, Scarlett granted Perry release without having to post any bond, but there will be some conditions on his movement.
Perry was released a few hours later and can sleep in his bed for the first time in two decades.
Scarlett did impose some restrictions pending Perry’s retrial. He cannot have any contact with the victims or witnesses in the case and must avoid the area of northern Camden County where the murders took place. He is also not allowed to open or use firearms or ammunition.
The Georgia Innocence Project and the law firm of King & Spalding, which worked to get Perry’s conviction overturned, released this statement after Thursday’s bond hearing:
Perry was serving two life sentences for the killings of Harold and Thelma Swain, who were slain inside Rising Daughters Baptist Church on Dover Bluff Road between Highway 17 and Interstate 9.
Attorney’s for Perry asked for a new trial after new evidence emerged, including DNA evidence tying another suspect to the crime scene.
Perry’s family released a statement Friday after Scarlett signed the order to give Perry a new trial:
“We are so happy that a wrong was righted today and that Dennis’s conviction was overturned. We have always believed in Dennis’s innocence and stood by him for the past 20 years. We thank the judge for listening to the evidence, thank the witnesses for their bravery and expertise, and thank the Georgia Innocence Project and King & Spalding for their hard work and dedication and commitment to truth. May the Swains finally have justice.”
The state had argued at a Monday hearing that Perry couldn’t seek a new trial because he signed an agreement to forgo appeals as part of an agreement to a life sentence after his conviction, avoiding a possible death penalty.
“He waived all appeal rights,” The Brunswick News reported Assistant District Attorney John Johnson as saying. He led the prosecution in Perry’s 2003 conviction.
Perry has denied involvement in the deaths since his January 2000 arrest. 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 didn’t disclose to the defense that the woman was paid $12,000 in reward money for her testimony.
Joe Gregory, a GBI agent assigned to the case in 1985, testified that he ruled out Perry after determining it would have been “virtually impossible” for him to be in Camden County at the time of the crime. Perry worked in the metro Atlanta area and didn’t leave his job until after 5:30 p.m. The shootings occurred at 8:40 p.m.
“In my opinion, we cleared Mr. Perry and we moved on to other suspects,” he said.
New evidence suggests that 57-year-old Erik Sparre could be involved.
Perry’s attorneys conducted a DNA test that now ties Sparre to the scene after reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found Sparre may have faked his alibi claiming he was at work at a supermarket. The then-manager, who testified Monday, said he didn’t recall talking to authorities. He said a sworn statement filed with investigators that included his Social Security number is not from him.
The DNA test linking Sparre to hairs in a pair of glasses found inches from the bodies led Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson to ask the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to reopen the murder investigation, which is ongoing.
Forensic examiner Gloria Dimick said Perry’s DNA doesn’t match the hair, but a sample from Sparre’s mother does match. Dimick said the new evidence does not prove Sparre is guilty but said “he could not be excluded.”
“The question is now whether or not they have enough evidence to convict the other person whose DNA they found,” Nichols said. “Just finding the DNA alone could be enough to convict a person whether or not this person is available to even to be tried is going to be the next question.”
Chad Head, the brother of Sparre’s first wife, who died in 2013, testified Monday that he remembered Sparre calling the family home in 1986, spewing profanity and saying he killed the Swains. He also used a racial slur. The Swains were Black; Sparre, who has said he’s innocent, is white. The words Head said he recalled were similar to those his family told police that Sparre used in 1986.
As police records indicate, Head said the call was recorded. He said relatives gave it to Camden County sheriff’s deputies. The tape now is among the evidence in the case that is missing.
Sparre’s second wife, Rhonda Tyson, testified that Sparre told her one day in the late 1980s that he killed the Swains.
“I was laying on the floor. He was straddling me with his hands on my throat,” Tyson testified. She recounted that Sparre said: “I will kill you like I killed those n-words in the church in Camden County.”
Andrew Ekonomou, a lawyer for the state, repeatedly objected to testimony not related to DNA evidence because the judge isn’t deciding who killed the Swains.
But Scarlett said in his order granting Perry’s motion that the DNA test linking Sparre to the scene would have resulted in a different verdict at Perry’s 2003 trial, which entitles him to a new trial.
“Dennis Perry was convicted of double murder eighteen years after the fact without any physical evidence connecting him to the crime scene,” Scarlett wrote. “Newly discovered DNA evidence links another suspect, one whose alibi for the night of the murders may have been fabricated, to the key piece of evidence recovered from the crime scene.”
At this time, prosecutors expect to retry Perry but the GBI continues to investigate the case.