Years Lost: 21
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.
The four original sketches.
The final composite.
- 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.
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.
The case received renewed media attention in 2018 as the focus of Undisclosed podcast’s third season in which dedicated reporters thoroughly reinvestigated the case, distilling thousands of pages and hundreds of suspects into a few promising leads. Building on that, a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution then honed in on one suspect in particular after uncovering that his original alibi had been fabricated. GIP Investigator Ron Grosse collected DNA evidence from a relative of that suspect which was then matched to evidence from the crime scene.
In 2019, Georgia Innocence Project and King & Spalding filed a habeas petition in Coffee County on behalf of Dennis Perry.
In 2020, Perry’s legal team from the Georgia Innocence Project and King & Spalding presented the new DNA evidence, alternate suspect information, and proof of official misconduct to then Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson. Rather than correcting the clear wrongful and unjust conviction, however, Johnson refused to consent to a new trial for Perry and instead sought to delay by requesting that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reopen the investigation of the 1985 murders. As a result, GIP and King & Spalding filed an Extraordinary Motion for New Trial (EMNT) in April 2020 and requested a hearing as soon as possible, given that Perry remained in prison amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
District Attorney Jackie Johnson fought hard to defend the conviction and keep Perry in prison by having the original trial prosecutor John Johnson and external contract attorney Andrew Ekonomou vigorously oppose the motion primarily on technical grounds. At the contested EMNT hearing in July, Perry’s legal team introduced proof of prosecutorial misconduct and the new DNA evidence, along with testimony from several witnesses who testified the alternate suspect had admitted to committing the murders. Brunswick Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett granted the EMNT on July 17, 2020, overturning Perry’s conviction. On July 23, 2020, Judge Scarlett ordered that Perry be released from prison on his own recognizance to await DA Jackie Johnson’s decision whether to dismiss the underlying charges.
Dennis Perry Exonerated | July 19, 2021
Mistaken Eyewitness Identification
King & Spalding