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Man convicted of double church murder could be paroled in September as he fights to get a new trial and clear his name

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has voted to grant tentative clemency release to Dennis Perry as early as September 3, 2020.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — There are new developments in the fight to free a Jacksonville man serving two life sentences for the murders of a couple inside a Camden County church in 1985. The Georgia Parole Board has tentatively granted parole to Dennis Perry. He could be released as early as September.

“It's an act of mercy,” Suzanne Baugh, Perry’s cousin said. “For a man who has been in prison for 20 years for something he did not do, has maintained his innocence, that new DNA evidence and the facts support that he did not do this. It's a good day not only for the Swain family who can hope soon they will know the truth, but it's also a great day for Dennis Perry. All we want is the truth.”

Perry has spent two decades in prison for the murders of Harold Swain and Thelma Swain who were shot to death inside Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Waverly, Ga.

“There is now DNA evidence that has been tested from eyeglasses and hair that was found at the scene back in 1985 that links this murder to a different person and excludes Mr. Perry from being a possible suspect,” Attorney Page Pate who serves on the Georgia Innocence Project Board said.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation reopened the Swain murder case in May after Perry's legal team filed a motion for a new trial based on that new DNA evidence. This week Perry received a letter of clemency from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles informing him the board voted to grant a tentative clemency release as early as Sept. 3, 2020.

“What that means is it's a type of parole," Baugh said. "It is not 'you’re free' or exonerated. It means that he will have to meet certain conditions, but it does mean that he gets out it. We are very grateful that the Parole Board listened to the evidence. They listened to his family."

The parole board's decision is tentative. There is a 90-day period for the board to receive any formal objections to the clemency release. While they wait, Perry's family is continuing to push for his immediate release. The 58-year-old is in prison in the Coffee Correctional Facility where 177 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

“We want him free, and we want him healthy and we feel like right now time is of the essence because of COVID,” Baugh said.

Perry's hearing on his Extraordinary Motion for New Trial is scheduled for July 13 in Glynn County.

His legal team, King & Spaulding and the Georgia Innocence Project, which are representing Perry pro bono said, “Since learning of the new DNA evidence further demonstrating Mr. Perry‘s innocence, we have urged District Attorney Jackie Johnson’s office and Attorney General Chris Carr’s office to take immediate action to address this miscarriage of justice. Mr. Perry has been wrongfully deprived of his liberty for more than 20 years - given this COVID outbreak in the prison and the threat it poses to incarcerated individuals, it is simply unconscionable for the State to keep him imprisoned and place his life in jeopardy as well.”

The Brunswick District Attorney’s Office said in a statement to First Coast News, “Our office requested the GBI to conduct an additional investigation in the Dennis Perry case on May 12, 2020, and that investigation is ongoing. We are committed to an outcome in this case that is based on the facts as developed in the investigation and the upcoming hearing scheduled for July 13, 2020. It would be irresponsible to both Mr. Perry and the Swain family to make conclusions about this case prior to having all of the information and the opportunity for a hearing.”

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