Mistaken Eyewitness Identification
CO-COUNSEL: King & Spalding
Update: July 17, 2020
Georgia Innocence Project and co-counsel King & Spalding secured a new trial for Dennis Perry after matching DNA recovered from the crime scene in 1985 to an alternate suspect during re-investigation of the case.
A Superior Court Judge today ordered a new trial for Dennis Perry, 58, following a contested hearing in Glynn County, Georgia, in which attorneys from Georgia Innocence Project and co-counsel King & Spalding presented evidence that not only exonerates Perry in the 1985 double murder of Harold and Thelma Swain, but also implicates an alternate suspect. Read the order granting a new trial below:
On a spring night in 1985, a white man walked into a black church and murdered the deacon and his wife.
The Rising Daughter Baptist Church. Photographed by law enforcement.
Law enforcement investigated hundreds of suspects, including Dennis Perry. Perry was cleared based on his alibi: he was at work in the Atlanta area.
No one was charged at the time.
The church's interior the night of the murders. Photographed by law enforcement.
Fifteen years later, Dennis Perry was arrested for the crime.
From the Florida Times Union. Terry Dickerson & Staff
By the time of Perry's arrest, his employer had shut down, and his employment records were not available for the jury.
He was cleared by all remaining physical evidence, including a pair of glasses believed to be worn by the killer that night.
Crime scene photograph with excerpts from court ordered eye exam and GBI lab report.
He was convicted based on inconsistent eyewitness testimony and incentivized witnesses.
Brunswick News. Karen Sloan.
He is still in prison today.
Camden County, Georgia
Camden County, GA | March 11th, 1985
In the spring of 1985, a double murder occurred at the Rising Daughter Baptist Church in the tiny southeast town of Waverly, GA. A white man entered the church and shot the black deacon and his wife. At the crime scene, inches from the deacon’s body and shell casings, lay a pair of glasses that did not belong to anyone in the church that night. Several women were in the adjacent room and all gave wildly different descriptions of the perpetrator, though it seems only one had spoken with him or seen his face clearly. Four different pictures of the shooter were made by four different women. All four were combined into a single composite. Police received hundreds of tips about the case, and in 1988, one anonymous tipster noted Perry's resemblance to the sketch.
Investigators cleared Dennis Perry in 1988 as a possible suspect. They determined that Perry had a solid alibi: he was at work hundreds of miles away the day of the shooting and could not have been in Waverly when the crime was committed. They also showed the woman at the church who spoke with the shooter a photo lineup that included Perry; she did not identify him. Finally, Perry did not wear glasses, like those found at the scene of the crime.
Around 15 years later, after an exhaustive investigation by the GBI and the Camden County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff William Smith offered $40,000 of seized drug-related civil forfeiture money to a friend and former sheriff's deputy to solve the murders. Within a week, the deputy had determined that Dennis Perry was the lead suspect, almost entirely due to information generated by a single informant who was seeking a $25,000 reward.
That incentivized witness provided a purported motive for the murders, and she also visited two of the women who had been present in the church and suggested to them that Perry was responsible for the murder. At trial, one of those women testified that Perry looked exactly like the shooter, but when she was shown a photograph of an alternative suspect, she thought he looked exactly like the shooter, too. The other woman, who had previously failed to identify Perry in a photo lineup in 1988, testified that Perry looked like the shooter but she could not be sure. The reward sought by the informant who showed these women Perry’s photograph was never disclosed to Perry’s defense team.
Perry was arrested in 2000. He was interrogated without counsel, and his statements were not recorded. He repeatedly told law enforcement that he did not know anything about the murders. He then made the mistake of engaging in a hypothetical conversation with officers, telling them that he would undo the murders if he could and speculating with them how and why the murders may have occurred. But when officers asked Perry where he stashed the gun, he told them they were putting words in his mouth. At trial, two officers testified about Perry’s hypothetical statements and called them a “confession.” The deputy who was paid to solve the case, however, also testified that Perry had said that he was at the church the night of the murders.
Perry was convicted in 2003. At trial, the jury did not see Perry’s time cards that would have provided an alibi and that cleared him in 1988, because his employer had closed down and the records were gone. After his conviction, the State’s informant was paid $12,000, which was also never disclosed.
After the jury found Perry guilty, the prosecutor agreed not to ask for the death penalty in exchange for Perry giving up his right to appeal. Perry was sentenced to two consecutive sentences.
All the women at the scene agreed that the perpetrator was white, in his late twenties or early thirties and had on dark clothes.
Some remembered him wearing glasses, others didn’t.
Most thought he was clean shaven, but one remembered a mustache.
Some remembered medium brown hair, but others remembered blonde, black, or even red hair.
All the witnesses agreed that the perpetrator was white, in his late twenties or early thirties and had on dark clothes.
He looked to be approximately 5'6" to 5'8" tall, with a medium or slight build.
Some remembered him wearing glasses, others didn't.
Most thought he was clean shaven, but one remembered a mustache.
The four original sketches.
The final composite.
In 2015, GIP secured DNA testing on the remaining physical evidence collected at the crime scene and used at trial: buttons from the perpetrator’s clothing, shell casings, and the church telephone wires that had been cut. Unfortunately, there was not usable DNA on any of the items.
In 2019, Georgia Innocence Project and King & Spalding filed a habeas petition on behalf of Dennis Perry, which is pending in Coffee County, where Perry is in prison.
Update: April 28, 2020
In a March 2020 re-investigation of the case, a GIP investigator was able to collect DNA for an alternate suspect who had repeatedly confessed to the 1985 murder. The DNA was compared by a lab to the DNA evidence left on the pair of glasses recovered at the crime scene. It was a match (99.6% of people would not have matched).
Update: May 23, 2020
Perry Case Front and Center in AJC Special Sunday Feature
GIP and King & Spalding's work in the Perry case has been increasingly amplified by the press. Just this week, News4Jax and First Coast News returned to Camden County to walk viewers through that fateful night in 1985 as the case was reopened by the GBI.
However, the case will receive its most extensive coverage yet in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's The Imperfect Alibi, an immersive web feature, including a short documentary, and 32-page special section in Sunday's paper, complete with a case timeline, crime scene evidence and interviews with investigators, family members and witnesses, some of whom have never spoken out before.
See the trailer for The Imperfect Alibi below.