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Georgia Man Exonerated After 2 Decades Behind Bars For 1985 Church Slaying Of Black Couple

The persistence of the Georgia Innocence Project helped overturn the conviction of Dennis Perry, who was accused of killing a Black couple during a Monday night bible study in 1985.

By Jax Miller
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A Georgia man was exonerated by the courts this week after serving more than 20 years in prison for a double murder he did not commit.

Dennis Perry saw his double murder conviction overturned last year after a former District Attorney requested the Georgia Bureau of Investigation take a new look at the 1985 case, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Hairs found attached to a pair of eyeglasses left at the crime scene, believed to be worn by the killer, matched a previous suspect in the murders that sent Perry to prison for decades. 

At Monday's hearing, attended by Oxygen, a judge cleared Perry of all charges.

"As a prosecutor, I have an obligation to seek and do justice, and sometimes, that means righting a wrong, dismissing charges, or declining to prosecute," District Attorney Keith Higgins told the court. "This is one of those cases."

On March 11, 1985, married couple Harold and Thelma Swain, both in their 60s, were killed in the vestibule of the Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Waverly, Georgia, according to court records obtained by Oxygen.com.

The murders that took place during a Monday night bible study occurred after a white man showed up to the predominantly Black church and asked to speak to Harold Swain, according to the Atlanta news outlet. Church members reported hearing a scuffle between him and the suspect; when Thelma Swain wife went to help, the suspect shot both of them dead.

Left behind was a critical piece of evidence: A pair of eyeglasses discarded inches away from the couple's bodies that contained two hairs believed to belong to the killer.  

Authorities initially cleared Perry as a suspect.

According to the Georgia Innocence Project, whose role was pivotal in a new look at the case, Perry didn’t wear glasses. Investigators cleared him again as a suspect in 1988, as he was hundreds of miles away at the time of the killings. 

Perry was arrested in 2000, according to the AJC, after the local District Attorney’s office paid his ex-girlfriend’s mother $12,000 for her testimony, in which she said that Perry told her in passing that he’d planned to kill Harold Swain; that payment was never disclosed to Perry’s attorneys.

Perry was convicted in 2003.

In July of 2020, Gladys Sparre, 79, provided investigators with a hair sample belonging to her son, Erik Sparre, who was a former suspect in the Swain murder, as was previously reported

In light of the new evidence, Superior Judge Stephen Scarlett ordered a new trial for Perry on July 17, 2020.

At Monday's hearing, Higgins said that the evidence excluded Perry but was "consistent with the DNA profile of another suspect in the case."

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“Dennis Perry was convicted of double murder 18 years after the fact without any physical evidence connecting him to the crime scene,” said Scarlett, according to News4Jax. “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.”

Two days later, Gladys Sparre was found dead.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation had not determined the cause of her death, according to The Brunswick News, which is pending further investigation.

Erik Sparre became a suspect back in 1986 when his former father-in-law gave authorities a phone recording where he implicated himself, according to People.

“I’m the mother------ who killed two n------- in that church, and I’m going to kill you and the whole damn family, even if I have to do it in a church,” he reportedly said in the recording.

In 1986, someone posing as Sparre’s boss told authorities over the phone that he was the suspect's alibi, but the boss at the time has since denied ever making such a call.

Sparre has not faced any charges in the murders.

On Monday, a tearful Perry addressed the court.

"I can move forward with my life. I can build a future and look forward to the time with my wife and family without having this hanging over my head," said Perry. "One thing I take away from this is never give up. Always have faith, because you don't know what or when God is working things out."

Perry said that he prays for justice for Harold and Thelma Swain, and hopes that can be found now that he was cleared as a suspect.

"You saw what I have always said from the very beginning," Perry told the court. "I am innocent."

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According to Higgins, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, as well as a cousin of the Swains who was present in court, they have agreed on the motion to exonerate Perry.

The Georgia Innocence Project called this "...the latest in this fascinating and heartbreaking story of how easy it can be to convict someone based upon unreliable evidence and official misconduct, and how hard it can be to right a wrongful conviction," according to a press release obtained by Oxygen.com

"I can believe again that the truth does matter," said Perry.

"You didn't assume I was guilty because I was convicted," Perry said, as he addressed Higgins. "Because the truth matters."

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