Convicted of killing a couple in 1985, Dennis Perry spent 20 years in prison before hair samples helped set him free. Now, the homicide charges against him have been dismissed.
July 23, 2021Updated 11:47 a.m. ET
Last year, nearly two decades after Dennis Perry was convicted of fatally shooting two people in the vestibule of a small church in Camden County, Ga., two hair samples — collected 35 years apart — tipped the scales in his favor.
By then, Mr. Perry’s case had achieved some level of notoriety. It was covered in newspaper articles and a podcast, and on the television show “Unsolved Mysteries.” In July 2020, a judge overturned his conviction on two counts of homicide, and he was released after two decades in prison.
But the charges remained. “They still had the indictment over my head,” Mr. Perry said in an interview on Wednesday. “It hung over my head for a whole year. We couldn’t understand why it was taking so long.”
On Monday, Chief Judge Stephen G. Scarlett Sr., of the Glynn County Superior Court, granted a motion by Keith Higgins, the district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, to dismiss the charges against Mr. Perry, 59. Now, the case against him is over for good.
“There are times when seeking justice means righting a wrong,” Mr. Higgins said in a statement. “While this case was prosecuted prior to my administration, the new evidence indicates that someone else murdered Harold and Thelma Swain.”
The homicide case isn’t over. No one else has been convicted of killing Harold Swain, 66, and Thelma Swain, 63, a married couple who were shot after a Bible study session at the Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Waverly, Ga., in 1985.
The crime was partly witnessed by some women who were at the church that evening. The Swains, a Black couple, were leaders of the congregation — he was a deacon — and well-known in their community. They were killed by a person whose appearance investigators had to guess at: Sketches compiled from witness accounts showed a young white man with hair that might have reached down to his collar.
It was unclear whether the attack was random, motivated by racism, or the result of a personal feud.
The man appeared to have left some evidence behind: a pair of glasses, attached to a couple of strands of hair. But officials’ early attempts to find him were inconclusive. They contacted Mr. Perry after receiving a tip, learned that he had been working in the Atlanta area around the time of the killings, and cleared him.
His DNA did not match that from the hair on the glasses.
In 1998, a new sheriff’s deputy took over the investigation into the killings and turned his attention to Mr. Perry, prompted in part by a woman who said she had heard Mr. Perry say that he was going to kill Harold Swain.
Mr. Perry was arrested in 2000. At his trial, prosecutors relied in part on the woman’s testimony, and also on statements that investigators said Mr. Perry had made during unrecorded interviews. According to his lawyers, the jury did not learn that the woman who had testified against him had received $12,000 in reward money.
Mr. Perry was convicted in 2003 of two counts of homicide, and prosecutors agreed not to request the death penalty if Mr. Perry gave up his right to appeal. He did, and was sentenced instead to two consecutive life terms.
“The fact that they sought the death penalty on a case with incredibly weak evidence, and involving extensive misconduct, is an indictment on the death penalty,” said Clare Gilbert, the executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project, which worked on the case for years. “Thank God Dennis Perry wasn’t executed before anybody found this out.”
After Mr. Perry’s conviction, the case continued to draw outside attention. It had been featured on the television show “Unsolved Mysteries” in 1988, and was highlighted on the program again in 2010. In 2018, the case was covered — and investigated — on the third season of “Undisclosed,” a podcast about wrongful convictions, and the law firm King & Spalding began representing Mr. Perry.
In 2020, the case was the subject of an award-winning investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That article cast doubt on an alibi that had been used by Erik Sparre, another man who had been investigated in connection with the killings.
The reporting spurred the Georgia Innocence Project to get a hair sample from Mr. Sparre’s mother, to see whether it matched the DNA from the glasses closely enough to suggest that a relative of hers had been at the church on the night of the killings.
All that attention helped push Mr. Perry’s case toward its conclusion this week, said Susan Clare, a lawyer with King & Spalding who represented Mr. Perry. “It certainly takes a lot of resources to be able to investigate a case like Dennis’s,” she added. “But it shouldn’t be this hard.”
Prosecutors’ reluctance to revisit the evidence was a major roadblock, Ms. Gilbert said, adding that Jackie Johnson, who was the Republican district attorney of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District, was slow to re-examine the case despite the DNA test that suggested Mr. Sparre was linked to the crime.
Ms. Johnson, who has been accused of mishandling the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger who was chased and shot dead by a former investigator for her office and his son, lost an election to Mr. Higgins, an independent, in November. She became the subject of a grand jury investigation last month, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Efforts to reach Ms. Johnson by phone, email and lawyers this week were unsuccessful.
Officials with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation searched Mr. Sparre’s home in August. The agency did not comment on his whereabouts this week and said the investigation had been turned over to the district attorney’s office for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. That office declined to comment on the investigation.
Attempts to reach Mr. Sparre by phone and email on Thursday were unsuccessful. Mr. Sparre told The Journal-Constitution last year that he was innocent.
For Mr. Perry, these last two decades have been difficult: He lost his mother, his father and his grandmother while he was incarcerated. This past year, he said, he has been living a quiet life with his wife and waiting to see whether the charges against him would ever be dropped.
“I never gave up hope,” Mr. Perry said. “I’ve always been innocent, and that’s what I tried to tell them. People don’t want to listen.”