COURT OVERTURNS CONVICTION OF GEORGIA MAN AFTER 22 YEARS OF WRONGFUL INCARCERATION

Convicted of burglary and sexual assault, Sandeep “Sonny” Bharadia has always maintained his innocence. 22 years later, a judge has finally overturned his conviction.

On Tuesday afternoon, Gwinnett County Judge Laura Tate filed an order granting habeas relief to long-time Georgia Innocence Project client, Sonny Bharadia. Judge Tate ruled that Sonny’s constitutional rights were violated and overturned his conviction. This decision provides the relief that Sonny has been fighting for for 22 years. 

Sonny Bharadia was represented in the habeas proceedings that led to this decision by GIP Senior Attorney Christina Cribbs and pro bono counsel, including: former GIP Staff Attorney Olivia Vigiletti, John Fleming and Anna Halsey of Eversheds Sutherland, LLP, and Holly Pierson of Pierson Law LLC.

Case Background

In 2001, a woman walked in on a man who was in the process of burglarizing her home in Thunderbolt, Georgia. The man sexually assaulted the woman at knife-point and then fled with some of her belongings. Before the woman was assaulted, she noticed that the man was wearing blue and white batting gloves.

Sonny Bharadia was in Lithonia, over 250 miles away from Thunderbolt, working on a friend’s car during the time the victim was attacked. 

Just a few days after the assault occurred, Sonny called police to report that Sterling Flint, an acquaintance of Sonny’s, had stolen Sonny’s car and was also in possession of a stolen motorcycle. In response, Sterling Flint threatened to kill Sonny, which Sonny also reported to the police.

When police went to investigate Flint, they discovered the sexual assault victim’s stolen property along with a pair of blue and white batting gloves. When the victim was shown a photo lineup, she identified Sterling Flint as her possible attacker.

Flint tried to deny his involvement in the crime by claiming that the stolen items found among his personal possessions actually belonged to Sonny Bharadia. After Flint attempted to shift the blame to Sonny, police then gave the victim a second photo lineup that did not include Flint. This time, she identified Sonny Bharadia as her possible attacker. Flint, a Black man, and Sonny, an Indian man, look nothing alike. 

While we have never seen this photo array, Sonny’s former attorney remembers laughing with the former police chief about how suggestive the array was, claiming that Sonny’s picture “jumps off the page at you.” (The state never disclosed either of these photo arrays to Sonny’s attorney, which meant he could not use the fact that the victim initially identified Sterling Flint in a photo array in Sonny’s favor at trial.)

Based on Flint’s fabricated version of events, the DA charged both Sonny Bharadia and Sterling Flint in this crime. Flint pleaded guilty to receiving the victim’s stolen property and, in exchange for not being prosecuted for the sex crime, provided false testimony against Sonny Bharadia. No physical evidence tied Sonny to the crime. Flint’s incentivized testimony, along with the victim’s unreliable identification of Sonny, were the only evidence supporting the prosecution’s case.

On June 27th, 2003, Sonny Bharadia was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

At the time of trial, the batting gloves worn by the attacker were not tested for DNA because the Georgia Bureau of Investigation required bodily fluids to conduct DNA testing and none were present. However, Sonny’s appellate attorney reached out to GIP for suggestions on the case, and GIP recommended he attempt to test the physical evidence for “touch” DNA, a cutting edge procedure at the time. Sonny’s appellate attorney had to send the items all the way to a lab in California, because so few labs were conducting this kind of test in the early 2000’s. The lab was able to obtain DNA profiles from the gloves and compare it with a sample obtained from Sonny—the DNA of the attacker did not match Sonny Bharadia. Years later, it was determined that the DNA profile on the batting gloves did match someone else: Sterling Flint.

The case was litigated all the way up to the Georgia Supreme Court, which ultimately decided against Sonny, partially on the erroneous grounds that the gloves could have been tested at the time of Sonny’s trial–even though touch DNA testing was not routinely performed by the GBI until 2015, more than a decade after Sonny’s trial. 

Habeas Corpus Process and Next Steps

GIP and pro bono counsel filed an amended habeas corpus petition in December 2022. An evidentiary hearing was held before Judge Tate on June 20, 2023, and relief was granted on April 9, 2024.

Now, the Attorney General’s Office has 30 days to decide whether or not to appeal the judge’s ruling. If they choose not to appeal, the order becomes final and the case returns to Chatham County (where Sonny was originally convicted). The Chatham County DA’s Office will then decide whether or not to continue pursuing charges against Sonny. 

Sonny and his team–GIP, pro bono counsel, family and friends–are so encouraged by the Court’s decision, which is a huge step toward bringing Sonny home.

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