CAMDEN COUNTY, Ga. – Attorneys for a man convicted of the 1985 murders of two people inside a Camden County church and the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office met with a judge on Wednesday to discuss his fate.
The judge ruled an earlier decision to grant Dennis Perry a hearing for a new trial will be upheld and will take place virtually on Monday, July 13.
“We welcome it. We want the truth. We think this is the greatest thing in the world because it is just going to bring out the truth. But let Dennis out. It’s not safe for him in the prison, and he’s an innocent man,” Suzanne Baugh, Perry’s first cousin, told News4Jax. “Crossing our fingers and really hopeful that what’s going to happen next is (he’s) going to walk out of there.”
When asked whether she was disappointed about the latest developments, Baugh said: “We’re not disappointed. We are cautiously optimistic. We will take whatever hope we can get at this point. We know the options to going to the hearing on July 13. We know what could happen there. We know what could not happen there.”
Perry, 58, is serving two life sentences. He 38 years old when he was arrested in 2000 in the 1985 murders of Deacon Harold Swain and his wife, Thelma. The murders happened inside the Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Waverly, Georiga. Perry was convicted of the murders in 2003. He has maintained his innocence since the beginning.
On Monday, June 29, the state filed papers saying it would not be prepared for a hearing on July 13. Agents with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation informed the state on Friday, June 26, they were “aggressively and vigorously investigating this matter,” however, “it does not expect its investigation to be complete by July 13.” The document goes on to say: “The state cannot, in good faith, take a position on Perry’s extraordinary motion for new trial or respond to it until the GBI has completed its investigation.”
“The state has had 35 years, the GBI has had 35 years to investigate the Swains’ murders,” Baugh said.
Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson’s office released the following statement after Wednesday’s meeting:
“Our office requested the GBI to conduct additional investigation in the Dennis Perry case on May 12, 2020, and that investigation is ongoing. We are committed to an outcome in this case that is based on the facts as developed in the investigation and the upcoming hearing scheduled for July 13, 2020. It would be irresponsible to both Mr. Perry and the Swain family to make conclusions about this case prior to having all of the information and the opportunity for a hearing.”
Perry’s lawyers have received notice that the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has tentatively granted Perry’s request for clemency, which could mean Perry could get out of prison 90 days after the notice was sent, making Sept. 3 his earliest release date.
According to Perry, his attorneys at the King and Spaulding law firm and the Georgia Innocence Project, the outcome of the GBI investigation should not determine whether the court should grant Perry a new trial, saying “Perry should not be held in limbo while the state tries to determine whether it has sufficient evidence after all of this time” to charge another man.
Perry’s attorneys and family members said they are worried for him as he faces increased health and safety risk due to the coronavirus pandemic and the COVID-19 outbreak at Coffee Correctional Facility, where he is incarcerated. According to the Georgia Department of Corrections website, Coffee Correctional Facility has the highest number of COVID-19 cases of any prison in the state.
“He is anxious. He is excited. he is scared. The state can change their mind. The state can do anything they want, and he lives by their whim,” Baugh said.
New DNA evidence in the 1985 murders excludes Perry, according to new court documents. The Georgia Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping individuals who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit, said not only does the DNA evidence exonerate Perry, but it links another man to the shooting deaths of the Swains. Perry’s attorney released a statement last week:
“Since learning of the new DNA evidence further demonstrating Mr. Perry’s innocence, we have urged District Attorney Jackie Johnson’s office and Attorney General Chris Carr’s office to take immediate action to address this miscarriage of justice. Mr. Perry has been wrongfully deprived of his liberty for more than 20 years -- given this COVID outbreak in the prison and the threat it poses to incarcerated individuals, it is simply unconscionable for the State to keep him imprisoned and place his life in jeopardy as well.”