In July 2020, a judge overturned Dennis Perry’s conviction. On Monday he was exonerated after two decades behind bars.

BRUNSWICK, Georgia – Dennis Perry was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2003 after a jury found him guilty of the 1985 murder of deacon Harold Swain and his wife Thelma Swain.

On Monday, at the age of 59, he officially left prison as a free man, after 20 years behind bars. A judge from the Brunswick Judicial Circuit accepted a district attorney’s motion to drop all charges against Perry.

“I lost my freedom in 2000. I lost my grandmother – my best friend – I lost her in 2014,” he said. “I lost my mother in 2017 and my father in 2020. I could never say goodbye or really grieve. Those emotions that are deprived in prison. I am grateful that this part of the nightmare is still behind me. I will deal with it every day, what happened to me.”

In July 2020, a judge overturned Perry’s 2003 conviction. Clare Gilbert, executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP) said it was a long time coming. GIP helped unburden 9 other people … Dennis is tenth.

“That conviction should never have happened,” said Gilbert. “We knew evidence was lost and disappeared before trial. We knew the eyewitness identifications were unreliable and yet he was convicted and no prosecutor came at any point in the meantime to fix it.”

Glynn County’s District Attorney Keith Higgins, who took office in January, said his office is now working with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations to make a decision on whether or not to prosecute the other suspect.

“I didn’t believe Dennis Perry committed these crimes,” he said.

Higgins said Perry will not receive any compensation for his decades of imprisonment.

“There is nothing in the state of Georgia that allows for compensation for wrongful detention or incarceration or wrongful conviction, so under the current law it is not viewing monetary compensation,” he added.

Perry has been represented by the Georgia Innocence Project and the law firm King and Spalding.

His attorney Susan Clare stood next to him as he read a statement to the media.

“The state has taken … my freedom, my family, my health,” Perry read while holding back tears. “My house … my pets. The business I was building. It was all taken away from me because of unlawful arrest and conviction. The ability to have my own children and watch them grow.”

In the courtroom, minutes before the judge announced the dropped charges, Perry turned to his wife Brenda and family, who were on the other side of the plexiglass.

They sent him air kisses and drew hearts with their fingers. Now Perry is happy that he no longer has to do this remotely.

“This is the culmination of over a decade of work,” said Gilbert of the GIP. “You’d think that it would be so easy to wrongly convict a person that it would be easy to correct a wrongful conviction after it happened, especially in a case like this where it’s so clear and so much Wrongdoing is associated with it. “

Perry said he had no grudges and could trust the system again. Monday was a day of celebration, but according to GIP, this could have gone in a different direction.

“He has been tried on a criminal offense. He could have been executed,” added Gilbert. “There have been so many times along the way where we thought that day would never come.”

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About the case

Here’s more on the case, according to our sister station First Coast News:

On March 11, 1985, the Swains attended a meeting at the Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Waverly. One of those present apologized around 9 p.m. and found someone in the anteroom of the church, according to a message from the Brunswick Judicial Circuit.

The man told the woman he needed to speak to 66-year-old Harold Swain. The woman left when Swain went to meet the man. Witnesses heard a scuffle and then four shots, the press release said.

Thelma Swain, 63, ran into the vestibule and was also shot, the court said. The killer fled the building shortly afterwards.

The case eventually went cold but was reopened in 1998, resulting in the arrest of Dennis Perry. Although Perry protested his innocence, he was still convicted of murder. To avoid the death penalty, Perry accepted a deal in which, according to the Georgia Innocence Project, he waived his right to appeal directly.

During the original 1985 investigation, detectives found different glasses with hair in their hinges that they believed belonged to the killer, the Brunswick Judicial Circuit says. While DNA tests in 2003 showed the hair did not belong to Perry, he was convicted nonetheless. The Georgia Innocence Project says Perry’s conviction was largely based on circumstantial evidence and character evidence.

The break in the case came in 2018 when the Perry case was the subject of the podcast “Undisclosed”. The podcast thoroughly investigated the case and identified an alternate suspect, according to the Georgia Innocence Project.

When the DNA was tested against a family member of the alternative suspect, it was a match.

In 2020, the Georgia Innocence Project and King & Spalding brought the evidence to court, but then-Braunschweig District Attorney Jackie Johnson refused to give her consent to a new trial.

However, based on evidence presented by Perry’s legal team, Brunswick Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlet overturned the conviction, released Perry and granted him a retrial in July 2020.

With a new prosecutor for the case, the charges were officially dropped in July 2021. After two decades behind bars, Perry was officially acquitted of the offense.