Dennis Perry Exonerated After 20 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment

Dennis Perry Exonerated After 20 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment

After more than 20 years behind bars, and just over one year after his release from prison, Dennis Perry has finally been exonerated.

Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins announced the dismissal of all charges against Dennis officially exonerating him in the 1985 double murder of Harold and Thelma Swain. 

For over three decades, Perry maintained his innocence in the deaths of a beloved deacon and his wife who were shot in the vestibule of Rising Daughter Baptist Church during an evening bible study in Waverly, Georgia, on March 11, 1985.

This exoneration would not have been possible without the help from co-counsel King & Spalding as well as the dedicated reporters and investigators that helped us find new evidence to prove once and for all that Dennis Perry is innocent. 

“It took a long time, but I never gave up,” said Dennis Perry. “I knew that eventually someone else would see the truth and I’m so grateful to Georgia Innocence Project and King & Spalding for bringing the truth to light. This indictment has been hanging over my head for over 20 years, and it’s such a relief to finally not have to worry about being accused of this awful thing.”

On a spring night in 1985, a White man walked into a Black church in Camden County and murdered the beloved deacon and his wife. The heinous crime rocked the small community of Waverly, GA, but law enforcement was unable to identify the perpetrator. The crime was later featured on Unsolved Mysteries, Crime Watch, and Prime Suspect. Tips from around the country poured in. Law enforcement investigated hundreds of suspects, including Dennis, but he was soon cleared based on his alibi: he had been at work in the Atlanta area. Eventually, the case went cold. That is, until 1998, when the Camden County Sheriff promised former deputy Dale Bundy a job if he could solve the case.

Within a week, Bundy identified Dennis as the main suspect based primarily on inconsistent eyewitness testimony and incentivized witnesses. Eighteen years after the murders, the State prosecuted Dennis and sought a death sentence. After the jury delivered a guilty verdict, the prosecutor offered him a deal; if Dennis waived his right to file a direct appeal, the prosecutor would ensure Dennis would not be executed. Dennis agreed and in turn received two consecutive life sentences in prison.

The case received renewed media attention in 2018 as the focus of Undisclosed podcast’s third season in which 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. 

A key turning point came in early 2020 when GIP Investigator Ron Grosse collected a hair sample voluntarily provided by a relative of that suspect. The hair was then submitted for mitochondrial DNA comparison against DNA evidence collected from hairs on a distinctive pair of glasses dropped at the crime scene, and the match was discovered.

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 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. One year and a new district attorney later, the charges are now finally dismissed.  

“We are grateful that, at last, the new Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney, Keith Higgins, was willing to evaluate this case based on principles of justice and dismiss the charges, rather than simply fight to secure a conviction at any cost,” said Clare Gilbert, Executive Director of the Georgia Innocence Project. “We hope that the Georgia Supreme Court and Georgia State Bar will soon adopt the proposed revisions to ethical Rule 3.8, Special Responsibilities of a Prosecutor, to help promote integrity and accountability in preventing and correcting more wrongful and unjust convictions .”

Since his release from prison, Dennis Perry has spent time at home with his wife, Brenda, reconnecting
with friends and family and trying to recover and readjust. The future for Dennis is bright, but there is still a long road ahead. Unfortunately, Georgia is one of 14 states that does not currently have a statutory compensation law to provide financial relief for years lost to wrongful conviction. Without one, exonerees like Dennis are left on their own, with virtually no support from the State, to rebuild their lives.

With that in mind, GIP has set up a personal fundraiser as a way to help Dennis and his family. All funds raised on this MightyCause fundraiser will go directly to Dennis Perry and are not tax-deductible.

To donate to Dennis’ personal fundraiser, follow this link:

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