Judge releases Perry from prison

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    A week ago today, Dennis Perry walked out of prison, a free man for the first time in 20 years. Waiting on the other side were his wife, relatives, advocates and the boiled peanuts and sweet tea he’d requested for his first meal.     “The work that we face,...

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    A week ago today, Dennis Perry walked out of prison, a free man for the first time in 20 years. Waiting on the other side were his wife, relatives, advocates and the boiled peanuts and sweet tea he’d requested for his first meal.

    “The work that we face, in Georgia in particular, is so challenging. There are so many barriers to getting somebody out of prison based on the grounds of innocence,” Georgia Innocence Project executive director Clare Gilbert said in a social media post last week. “… Days like this are rare, and they're also what keep us going through the rough times.”

    Perry, 58, had been serving two life sentences for the 1985 murders of Harold and Thelma Swain at Rising Daughter Church in Waverly. He was released on bond last week after a judge heard about new DNA evidence in the case and overturned his conviction on July 17. 

Perry first wrote the Georgia Innocence Project in 2004, a year after his conviction, but other work on his case hasn’t resulted in significant movement.

He’s free today because project staff and others kept digging, taking another look recently at Erik Sparre who was a suspect in the 1980s. A hair sample from his mom led to DNA testing that showed Sparre — who has not been charged and denies any involvement — fell into the 0.4% of the population that couldn’t be excluded.

The DNA sample came from hair stuck in a pair of glasses — presumably worn by the murderer — that were found at the crime scene. The DNA results excluded Perry and four other suspects but weren’t introduced during his trial.

In the motion for a new trial, Perry’s pro bono attorneys with King & Spalding argued that Perry wouldn’t have been prosecuted if the new DNA evidence had been available earlier.

Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett agreed, granting Perry a new trial and overturning his conviction.

“Dennis Perry was convicted of a double murder 18 years after the fact without any physical evidence connecting him to the crime scene,” Scarlett wrote in his order. “Newly discovered DNA evidence links another suspect, whose alibi for the night of the murders may have been fabricated, to the key piece of evidence recovered from the crime scene.”

What happens next depends on the district attorney’s office, which opposed Perry’s motion and argued that the evidence wasn’t significant. The district attorney could appeal Scarlett’s order, dismiss the charges or pursue murder charges again.

District attorney Jackie Johnson has said she’s waiting to see what Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents find now that they’ve reopened the case into the Swains’ murders. GBI is also investigating the death of Gladys Sparre, Erik Sparre’s mom, earlier this month.