After 25 years behind prison bars for a murder he did not commit, Dontae Sharpe, now 44, is breathing free air.
A witness on Thursday recanted her decades-old testimony that she saw Sharpe fatally shoot Greenville man George Radcliffe, a judge ordered a new trial and prosecutors said they would not pursue the case again, according to the Associated Press.
Sharpe was free within about an hour.
I’m “relieved it’s all over,” Sharpe’s mother, Sarah Blakely, told the AP. “Justice was served.”
Oxygen featured Sharpe’s story on last year’s “Final Appeal.” Hosts Brian Banks and Loni Coombs dug into the evidence against Sharpe and concluded that authorities had likely put the wrong man behind bars.
There was no physical evidence linking Sharpe — then 19 — to the scene where 33-year-old Radcliffe was murdered. His original conviction was based largely upon witness testimony — much of which was later recanted — according to AP.
Charlene Johnson Frazier was 15 at the time of the murder, and she told authorities in 1994 that she witnessed the killing. However, two months after Sharpe’s conviction, she backed off her original statement, according to local outlet WITN. Still, Sharpe remained imprisoned, serving a life sentence.
At Thursday’s hearing, Frazier said that in 1994 she was pressured by law enforcement to testify, and that she made up what she saw, partially based on things she had seen on television, WITN reported.
Former State Medical Examiner M.G.F. Gilliland also testified in May that prosecutors’ narrative of the murder was not medically or scientifically possible, AP reported.
After Thursday’s hearing a new trial was ordered, but Pitt County Assistant District Attorney Valerie Pearce said that her office would not go after Sharpe again, North Carolina local paper the Daily Reflector reported.
“We are having to dismiss it, because there is not sufficient evidence to prove the case at this point,” Pearce told the Reflector. “We have a recanting witness, and she was the main evidence. The other witnesses are either dead or have major credibility issues. We just don’t have the evidence to prosecute it at this point.”
Sharpe said Thursday, after he was set free, that he refused to take plea deals offering a lighter sentence because he didn’t do it, AP reported.
How did he manage to stay strong for those 25 years?
“My faith,” Sharpe told AP. “Knowing I was innocent and the way I was raised. My momma always told me if you didn’t do something, don’t own up to it. Don’t say you did it.”
Family, friends and supporters of Sharpe were expected to gather to celebrate his freedom at Philippi Church of Christ in Greenville, WITN reported.
The former head of the state NAACP chapter said Thursday that the deck was stacked against Sharpe from the beginning.
“It was the racism within the system that said, basically, any black man will do,” The Rev. William Barber told AP, adding that Sharpe’s family would have needed a “powerhouse attorney” to fight the case in 1994.
Banks, who spoke with witnesses and family of Sharpe for the “Final Appeal” finale, knows a thing or two about wrongful convictions himself. In 2002, he was falsely accused of kidnapping and rape, spending five years in jail and five on probation after he took a plea deal, on the advice of his attorney. In 2012, he was exonerated, and since then, he has encouraged others who have been wrongfully convicted through work with the Innocence Project, and on “Final Appeal.”
I’m “happy to say Dontae Sharpe is home,” Banks Tweeted on Thursday. “25 years in prison, for a crime he did not commit … Are you reading this? Honored to have profiled his story on [‘Final Appeal’].”
Co-host Loni Coombs said Friday morning that she is "thrilled" that Sharpe is back with his family based on a conviction she believes was unjust, and praised the work of Sharpe's attorneys, family and supporters.
"The judge and the prosecutors did the right thing," Coombs said. "It was clear that the conviction should be overturned, which is what the judge ordered. I'm glad that the prosecutor did not prolong the injustice by trying to pursue another trial. I'm so grateful that Brian Banks and I were able to put a spotlight on Dontae's case on 'Final Appeal.'"
"Justice was finally done," she added.
Sharpe plans to catch up on family time — he has a daughter, two grandchildren, nieces and nephews — according to AP.
“I’m going to take a breath right now and gather myself,” he said. “I’m feeling shocked a little bit.”
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