BRUNSWICK, Ga. – A man who says he has been wrongfully convicted of murdering two people inside a Georgia church in 1985 appeared in front of a Glynn County judge on Monday.
Dennis Perry, who has been behind bars since 2000, is seeking a new trial based on new DNA evidence in the murders of Deacon Harold Swain and his wife, Thelma. The Swains were shot and killed inside their church in Waverly, which is in Camden County, Georgia.
The hearing for new trial began at 9:30 a.m. Monday, and the court heard from eight witnesses affiliated with the case, but not Perry. Perry joined the hearing virtually from Coffee Correctional Facility.
The hearing adjourned just after 6:30 p.m., with the judge saying he will make a ruling Friday.
In May, Perry’s attorneys filed an extraordinary motion for new trial based on new DNA evidence discovered in the case. According to court documents, the new DNA evidence comes from three hairs attached to a pair of eyeglasses found at the crime scene. They were hairs from a white person. Court documents show the new DNA evidence from the hairs excludes Dennis Perry and includes a man named Erik Sparre. Sparre was arrested a year after the murders but was released shortly after as investigators did not find any other physical evidence connecting Sparre to the crime.
Earlier this year, Sparre’s mother voluntarily gave a sample of DNA to Georgia Innocence Project investigators. That DNA was compared to the hairs found on the eyeglasses at the scene more than 35 years ago. It was a match. A lab concluded the hairs could have only come from less than one-half of 1% of the U.S. population and Sparre was in that grouping
One of the witnesses who the court heard from on Monday was the forensic examiner who tested the new DNA evidence in the case.
“Dennis Perry, as well as all of his maternal relatives, would be excluded,” said Gloria Dimick, with Mitotyping Technologies.
The court also heard from a GIP investigator, the executive director of the GIP and Joe Gregory, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent who responded to the murders in 1985. Gregory told the court Monday that the DNA testing recently used to discover the new evidence was not available at the time of the crime. He also said the glasses were not in court in 2003, as they were submitted to evidence but then the sheriff’s office sent the glasses to the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries” and the glasses were lost.
The court also heard from David Mobley, a manager at the Winn-Dixie store where Sparre worked. Following his testimony, Sparre’s second wife, Rhonda Tyson, testified, referring to Sparre as violent.
Chad Head -- the brother of Sparre’s first wife, Emily Head, who was killed in 2013 -- testified that Sparre was violent and recorded threatening phone calls that were entered into evidence but are now missing.
The final witness was Jennifer Tyre, who said that Sparre admitted to killing two people.
Perry was convicted of the murders in 2003. He has maintained his innocence for decades. According to court documents, he has a confirmed and verified alibi the evening of the murders. Also, at the time, he had 20/20 vision in each eye.
Representing the state is the man who tried Perry -- Chief Assistant District Attorney John Johnson, who has no relation to Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson -- and Andrew Ekonomou, a former state prosecutor who stated throughout the hearing that Perry waived his right to appeal in 2003 in exchange to avoid the death penalty. Perry’s attorneys with King and Spaulding and the GIP say otherwise.
“The key here is to get Mr. Perry out of jail,” said Philip Holliday, with King and Spaulding.
On Monday, News4Jax heard from Perry’s family, who said: “After watching the court proceedings today, it appears the state is not interested in the truth, or in releasing an innocent man that has been in prison for 20 years. The state appears more interested in defending a suspect that DNA evidence proves was at the scene of two brutal murders. We believe the truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose and it will defend itself.”
News4Jax also spoke with Perry’s family members ahead of Monday’s hearing.
“It’s hard enough to be in prison when you’re guilty. I don’t know if there’s a measurable amount of how you survive when you’re not guilty. This is our chance now for everyone to know the truth and the truth to be told,” explained Brenda Perry, who married Dennis Perry behind bars on Jan. 24, 2009. “Dennis was convicted on less evidence than they got today. But they still want to hold an innocent man in prison, and there’s a man out there that the DNA does match, and you’re just going to let him live life with an innocent man locked up. That just doesn’t make sense to me. We’re ready.”
Since then, Brenda Perry has visited regularly. Often times, she has brought with her loved ones, including the couple’s grandchildren who call Dennis Perry “Papa Sunshine.”
Loved ones have not been able to see Dennis Perry behind bars since March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s a sentence on a sentence,” Brenda Perry said.
Last month, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles tentatively granted Dennis Perry clemency with a release date in September.
“Our plan is for him to come home Monday. Sept. 3 is plan B. We don’t need a plan C. We are done,” explained Brenda Perry, who said she cannot wait to pick him up from prison. “Probably very heart-dropping. I don’t know if there will even be. I don’t know because we haven’t seen one another or touched one another or smelled one another or looked at one another. Don’t worry, I have him a change of clothes in the car, a Florida Gator hat, I got him one, a Jags shirt. He is ready to go. I have him a brand-new pair of shoes. He will be living life, and I will be there to pick him up.”
Suzanne Baugh is Dennis Perry’s first cousin.
“Emotionally we are hopeful. I am hopeful. We are excited. I have this hope and this excitement in me -- I can’t tell you where it comes from. Finally, someone is listening. After all this time, he is going to be heard, and he is going into this with more support and more evidence in his favor, the truth of what the state held back when he was originally convicted, and that’s all in our favor,” said Baugh. “We are prepared to do whatever we need to do, to be there every moment. Dennis has maintained his innocence from the very beginning. There were so many things to prove his innocence that were withheld at trial. There were so many things that were to say another person did it that were never investigated until recently, so we are just waiting for someone to say, ‘He can go now because he didn’t do it.‘”
Baugh also said the Swains need justice.
“That’s one of the things that gets lost in all of this: the victims, these poor people that were murdered. Nobody is standing up for them and saying, Let’s do the right thing,' which should be the state standing up, saying, ‘Let’s do the right thing to find the person who did this. Oh, there’s someone who was at the scene. Now let’s bring that person in.‘ But nobody is saying that for them, and I have to believe they can’t have peace until the correct person is in prison,” Baugh said. “If it’s not tomorrow or Tuesday or sometime next week, the next date we look forward to is Sept. 3. We want him out. We think that is the safest thing due to COVID in the prison system. But we will take it.”