BRUNSWICK, Ga. — The Brunswick Judicial Circuit judge accepted a district attorney's request to formally drop all charges against a Georgia man sentenced to life in prison for a 1985 double-murder.
Dennis A. Perry, 59, was convicted in 2003 for the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain. He has been free since July 2020 after a judge overturned his original conviction and granted him a new trial.
“There are times when seeking justice means righting a wrong,” said District Attorney Keith Higgins, who took office Jan. 1, 2021. “While this case was prosecuted prior to my administration, the new evidence indicates that someone else murdered Harold and Thelma Swain."
On March 11, 1985, the Swains attended a meeting at Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Waverly. One of the attendees excused herself at about 9 p.m. and found someone in the church's vestibule, according to a release by the Brunswick Judicial Circuit.
The man told the woman he needed to speak to 66-year-old Harold Swain. The woman left as Swain went to meet with the man. Witnesses heard a scuffle then four gunshots, the release says.
Thelma Swain, 63, ran into the vestibule and was also shot, the court states. The killer escaped the building shortly after.
The case eventually went cold but was reopened in 1998, which led to the arrest of Dennis Perry. Although Perry proclaimed his innocence, he nevertheless was convicted of murder. To avoid the death penalty, Perry accepted a deal in which he waived his right to file a direct appeal, according to the Georgia Innocence Project.
During the original 1985 investigation, detectives found a pair of distinct glasses with hairs stuck in the hinges that they believed belonged to the killer, the Brunswick Judicial Circuit says. While DNA testing in 2003 found the hairs did not belong to Perry, he was still convicted. The Georgia Innocence Project says Perry's conviction was largely based on circumstantial and character evidence.
The break in the case came in 2018, when the Perry case became the subject of the podcast 'Undisclosed.' The podcast thoroughly investigated the case, according to the Georgia Innocence Project, and identified an alternative suspect.
When the DNA was tested against a family member of the alternative suspect, it was a match.
In 2020, the Georgia Innocence Project and King & Spalding, the law firm representing Perry, presented the evidence in court but then-Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson refused to give her consent to a new trial.
However, due to the evidence presented by Perry's legal team, Brunswick Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlet overturned the conviction, freed Perry and granted him a new trial in July 2020.
“A big burden's been lifted off me. I am free to be a free man," Perry said after leaving the Glynn County Courthouse Monday.
Perry added, he has no hard feelings towards those who convicted him.
“I can put my trust back in the system now. I didn't, but I can now because of what Keith Higgins and Judge Scarlet has done," he said.
With a new district attorney on the case, the charges were formally dropped in July 2021. After two decades behind bars, Perry was officially exonerated of the crime.
"He was tried on a death penalty offense, he could have been executed, he had to waive his right to appeal a wrongful and unjust conviction in order to stay alive," Georgia Innocence Project Executive Director Clare Gilbert explained. "And then it took 20 years after that for his conviction to be overturned. There are so many lessons to be learned from this case.”
Moving forward, Gilbert says, the hope is that people will look to this case to make it easier to correct other wrongful convictions. However, for now, the focus is on Perry’s exoneration.
“Today is a is a great day. And we're celebrating with Dennis that the world finally knows what has been obvious to us for so long, which is that Dennis is innocent," Susan Clare, Perry’s attorney said.
Perry will not receive any money from the state because Georgia is one of 13 states that doesn’t have laws in place that allows for any compensation for wrongful incarceration or conviction.
The district attorney says his office received the full investigative case file from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation last week and is in the process of reviewing it.
“Once we've all reviewed it, then we'll get together and discuss it and make a decision as to whether or not there's going to be a prosecution against anyone else in the case," Higgins said.