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Just two days after a new trial was ordered for a man convicted of a brazen double homicide, the woman who provided the DNA that led to the new trial—and suggested a possible new suspect—died in her home.
Gladys Sparre, 79, provided authorities with a DNA hair sample that convinced a Georgia judge to overturn the conviction of Dennis Perry, a man who has spent two decades behind bars for the 1985 slayings of beloved Black couple Harold and Thelma Swain.
Instead, Sparre's DNA sample pointed investigators toward her own son, Erik Sparre, a former suspect in the murders who had been ruled out years ago after providing an alibi, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
A superior court judge ordered a new trial for Perry on July 17 after DNA recovered from the crime scene had led to an “alternate suspect,” according to a statement from the Georgia Innocence Project.
Just two days later, on July 19, Gladys died in her Waynesville, Georgia home, according to her obituary. Authorities have not said whether foul play is suspected in the death.
The Swains were killed on March 11, 1985 when a man walked inside the predominantly Black Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Waverly, Georgia and shot the couple inside the vestibule.
Authorities believe the killer left behind a pair of “unique” glasses that had two hairs stuck in the hinge, according to an order granting the new trial posted online by the Georgia Innocence Project.
A new DNA test found that the hairs do not match Perry but do appear to match Erik Sparre.
“Mr. Perry contends that that this new DNA evidence, when considered in light of a lack of physical evidence connecting Mr. Perry to the crime and the evidence now connecting Mr. Sparre to the crime warrants a new trial,” the court documents state.
Erik Sparre was initially considered a suspect in the slayings after his ex-wife allegedly told authorities he'd confessed to committing the crime, according to court records obtained by the local paper.
Her family gave police a recording of a man they said was Sparre admitting to murdering the couple.
“I’m the motherf---er that killed the 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,” the man in the tape allegedly said, according to a motion for a new trial filed on Perry’s behalf obtained by People.
The woman—who said her former husband had “hated Blacks”—also picked out the pair of glasses found at the crime scene from a photo line-up and identified them as glasses that had belonged to Sparre, according to the local paper.
Sparre, now 56, told the paper earlier this summer that he wasn’t missing any glasses, didn’t know where the church was where the murders occurred, and just wanted to be left alone.
Authorities later dismissed Sparre as a possible suspect in the case after a man who said he was Sparre’s boss, listed in a detective files as Donald A. Mobley, said Sparre had been working as an overnight stocker from the afternoon before the murders to the morning after the slayings.
However, that alibi would later be called into question after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently began digging into the alibi and found no one with the name Donald A. Mobley. The man who managed the store at the time was David Mobley. David Mobley told the paper he had no memory of ever speaking with police about Sparre or providing an alibi.
The case went cold for more than a decade—even once appearing on an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries”—until authorities turned their attention to Perry.
The mother of a woman who had once dated Perry told authorities she believed he was the killer. The woman, Jane Beaver, testified in Perry’s 2003 trial and said that he had wanted to kill the couple because Harold Swain had laughed in his face when he asked for money.
The jury was not told that Beaver received $12,000 in reward money for her testimony, a fact that was later discovered by the Georgia Innocence Project as they worked on the case, the paper reports.
Sparre’s mother, Gladys, agreed to voluntarily provide a DNA sample on Feb. 24, 2020, according to the court documents.
The mitochondrial DNA analysis done with that sample was later linked to the crime scene and suggested Erik Sparre as a possible suspect in the slayings.
Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett ruled on July 17 that Perry should be given a new trial in light of the new evidence.
“The new DNA evidence is reliable, substantive forensic evidence indicating another suspect, Erik Sparre, may have been present at the crime scene,” he wrote, according to People.
Scarlett went on to say that there had been no “physical evidence” connecting Perry to the crime.
“Newly discovered DNA evidence links another suspect, one whose alibi for the night of the murders may have been fabricated, to a key piece of evidence from the crime scene,” he wrote.
Perry was released from prison Thursday afternoon after spending 20 years behind bars, local station WJXT reports. The judge ordered he did not have to pay any bond.
“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.”
The Georgia Innocence Project and the law firm of King & Spalding also issued a statement after Perry’s release.
“We are grateful that the Court has ordered Dennis Perry’s release, and we are thrilled to welcome Dennis Perry home to his family after twenty years spent wrongfully imprisoned for crimes he did not commit. It does not escape our attention, however, that Dennis is not yet truly free despite compelling evidence of innocence on top of clear constitutional violations,” they said. “We hope that the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office expeditiously decides to demonstrate accountability and do the right thing. We hope that Dennis Perry’s nightmare will soon be over and that everyone impacted by this tragic and unjust case can begin the process of healing and recovery.”
It’s not clear whether the state will decide to re-try Perry.
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