ATLANTA — Dennis Perry’s fate remains in limbo as he waits for various agencies and officials to decide whether he was wrongfully convicted of a double murder in South Georgia.
But the 58-year-old had more reason to hope this week after learning that the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles had tentatively granted him parole. The decision means, unless board members change their minds, he will be released around the start of September.
The board’s tentative decision means the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted him, has 90 days to share an opinion. The clock started on June 3, when the board made its decision.
This year is the first that Perry has been eligible for parole because state law required him to serve 20 years before being considered. He was arrested in January 2000 in the 1985 killings of Harold and Thelma Swain, who were gunned down inside their Camden County church during a Bible study.
It isn’t clear whether doubts about Perry’s conviction played a role in the parole decision. Board members don’t disclose the reasoning behind such decisions and each member may have different considerations. Before making decisions, the board reviews inmates’ case files, which include information about the crimes they’re convicted of as well as statements from people who know them and, if included, evidence suggesting the incarcerated person is innocent.
In this case, the board would’ve seen that his attorneys filed an extraordinary motion for new trial in April because a DNA test completed in March had connected a different suspect to the crime scene. After the DNA revelation, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has created a task force to reinvestigate the murders. It isn’t clear when the agents will finish their work. Because of the uncertain timeline, the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office appears to be seeking to delay a July 13 hearing on Perry’s motion for new trial.
“The state cannot, in good faith, take a position on Perry’s extraordinary motion for new trial or respond to it until the GBI has completed its investigation,” Assistant District Attorney Andrew Ekonomou wrote in a court filing, seeking a meeting with the judge. Ekonomou has prosecuted high profile cases for the DA’s office through the years, but he rose to more prominence in 2018 when he was added to President Donald Trump’s legal team in the Russia investigation.
In his recent filing, Ekonomou didn’t ask for a delay, but requested a conference with the judge to discuss a delay.
Perry’s attorneys don’t want the hearing postponed.
“Mr. Perry appreciates the time and resources being spent by the GBI to aggressively and thoroughly re-investigate the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain, and is hopeful that the investigation ultimately will lead to the prosecution and conviction of the murderer,” his attorneys from the Georgia Innocence Project and the King & Spalding law firm wrote Monday. “But whether or not the GBI’s investigation leads to that outcome is not the legal issue currently before the court.”
What is before the court is whether the DNA evidence linking another suspect to the crime scene would have led to a different verdict if the jury had known about it during Perry’s 2003 trial.
The jury didn’t know about it, because police dropped Erik Sparre as a suspect in 1986 based on his alibi that he was on the clock at a Brunswick Winn-Dixie when the Swains died on March 11, 1985. DNA testing wasn’t common in the mid-80s or police might have checked his DNA against hairs found in the hinge of a pair of glasses found near the bodies. Perry’s attorneys decided to test Sparre’s DNA after learning that reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution uncovered problems with Sparre’s alibi.
The test compared DNA taken from Sparre’s mother to DNA in hairs from the scene. (Perry’s DNA was tested before his 2003 trial and he didn’t match.) The results show that the hairs in the glasses belonged to someone from Sparre’s maternal line, the April court filing says. Sparre, who has told The AJC that he is innocent, is the only person in his maternal line to have allegedly told multiple people he killed the couple, including his first and second wives, who both came forward to authorities 10 years apart to reveal his alleged admissions. Both ex-wives described Sparre, a white man, as holding deep hatred for Black people, a claim Sparre denies. The Swains were black.
In Perry’s Monday filing, his attorneys said they have also spoken with “a number” of witnesses whose statements about Sparre “only further inculpate Mr. Sparre in the Swains’ murders.” Some of those people have also spoken with the GBI.
GBI Director Vic Reynolds said he couldn’t give a timeline on when the investigation will conclude, but he said agents are working with urgency.
Perry’s attorneys say urgency is needed as a COVID-19 outbreak ravages Coffee Correctional Facility where Perry is held in South Georgia. As of the latest figures, the prison has 177 confirmed cases among inmates — more than double the number of any other Georgia prison.
Perry’s attorneys say they continue to urge the DA’s office and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office to release him because “it is simply unconscionable for the state to keep him imprisoned and place his life in jeopardy as well.”
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