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Judge drops all charges against Georgia man accused in 1985 double murder

Dennis Perry convicted in 2000 of killing church deacon and his wife in 1985

BRUNSWICK, Ga. – A 59-year-old man who spent more than 20 years locked up accused of killing a Camden County couple walked away from court a free man Monday afternoon, one year after his conviction was overturned.

Dennis Perry was accused of murdering Harold and Thelma Swain inside a Waverly, Georgia, church in 1985. Perry was arrested for the murders in 2000 and convicted in 2003.

Last year, after new DNA evidence was presented in the case, Perry’s attorneys filed a motion for a new trial. In July 2020, a judge granted the request for a new trial and Perry has been out of prison on his own recognizance.

In Glynn County Superior Court on Monday, District Attorney Keith Higgins said after his review of the case and consultation with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Perry should not be retried on the charges and Glynn County Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett Sr. agreed.

Perry addressed the court, saying he hopes the real killer is found and the family of the victims get justice in the case.

“I pray every day for Harold and Thelma Swain,” Perry said.

After the hearing, the Georgia Innocence Project released Perry’s statement about the ordeal.

“It took a long time, but I never gave up,” Perry said. “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.”

Higgins said the victims’ family was consulted prior to the decision to dismiss the charges.

“There are times when seeking justice means righting a wrong,” Higgins said in a statement released immediately after the decision. “While this case was prosecuted prior to my administration, the new evidence indicates that someone else murdered Harold and Thelma Swain. Mr. Perry is now, and has been since July 2020, a free man. We will continue to examine all the evidence in the case -- new and old -- as we determine what the next step will be in this investigation.”

Meanwhile, GBI investigators have re-opened the case into the murder of the Swains. They exhumed the body of Harold Swain last year, but there has not been an update on the case since.

Harold and Thelma Swain were shot to death March 11, 1985, at Rising Daughter Baptist Church in northern Camden County. (WJXT archives/law enforcement photos)

DNA evidence that came to light last year shows Perry might have been acquitted if that evidence had been available during his 2003 trial for the March 11, 1985 murders. Perry was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences and imprisoned in March 2003.

Perry’s conviction may have never been overturned if not for the Georgia Innocence Project.

In March of 2020, investigators with the Georgia Innocence Project present DNA from a hair sample, voluntarily given by Gladys Sparre, the mother of Erik Sparre, a one-time suspect in the case. Erik Sparre’s hair turned a perfect match for hairs in a pair of glasses found inches from the bodies of the Swain’s.

Most importantly, DNA evidence from the sample of hair match excluded Perry.

Perry’s alibi also showed it would be virtually impossible 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.

One month after the new evidence was presented, Perry’s attorneys filed an extraordinary motion for a new trial in light of this newly discovered DNA evidence. In July 2020, a judge granted the request for a new trial and Perry had been out of prison on his own recognizance since July 2020.


About the Authors:

An Emmy-nominated TV reporter and weekend anchor.

Reports weeknights for The Ten O'Clock News and News4Jax at 11.