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Dontae Sharpe

Other North Carolina Exonerations
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At about 9:15 p.m. on February 11, 1994, 33-year-old George Radcliffe was found shot to death in his Mazda pickup truck near the intersection of Sheppard and West Sixth streets in Greenville, North Carolina. The neighborhood was predominantly African-American with a reputation for drug activity; Radcliffe was white, and police believed the shooting was likely related to a drug transaction gone bad.

Police and EMS quickly responded to a 911 call. A witness who heard the shooting but didn’t see the shooter said he saw the truck speed through the intersection. It then hit a stop sign and wound up in a vacant lot. An EMS responder would say in his report that Radcliffe was sprawled across the truck’s cab, with his legs under the steering wheel and his head and torso in the passenger’s foot well. The passenger door was locked. The lights were on, and the keys were in the ignition. The driver’s side door was closed and the window was rolled down about half way. Radcliffe still had his wallet, which contained $53. Near the middle of the bench seat was an Army jacket with the name “Nobles” across the front left pocket.

Officer K.L. Jones of the Greenville Police Department was among the first officers to respond. While he and others were processing the crime scene, a man named Wilbur Mercer, who went by the nickname “Marshanna,” approached him and asked whether he could look inside the truck.

According to Jones’s report, Mercer told him that he had been with Radcliffe about two hours earlier, when Radcliffe had been looking for cocaine, and that the two had done similar deals in the past. He said Radcliffe had dropped him off to find drugs. Mercer said that during this period, he spotted what he thought was an unmarked patrol car. He said Radcliffe sped off, taking his coat with him. Later, Mercer would tell police that he had given Radcliffe his jacket as false collateral, because his goal was simply to steal his money. Mercer also said that he was riding around with his wife when he heard that there had been a shooting.

The investigation stalled for nearly two months. On April 7, police interviewed a troubled teenager named Charlene Johnson, who had turned 14 a month after the shooting and had recently been discharged after three weeks of voluntary commitment to a psychiatric ward. In her statement to police, stamped at 1:30 p.m., she wrote that she had been on her way to a neighborhood convenience store, when “I stop at the stop sign. And I so (sic) Donta and a white male and Mark Joy. Donta was about to sale that white male a rock but he only had $18.00. Donta said I can’t do it you have to have the money straight up and the white male said Fuck you man. Donta push him and then he pulled out a gun a shot him.”

Johnson’s first statement contained an essential flaw: if Radcliffe had been pushed and then shot, how did he wind up back in the truck? At 1:34, she appended her statement, writing: “Also Donta move the truck a ran it in the field. And Mark and Donta pick the white male up and from where he got shot put him in the truck and Donta throw the keys and the gun somewhere And Mark and Donta split up and meet each other and got into a red escort.”

Three hours later, police arrested 19-year-old Dontae Sharpe and 23-year-old Mark Joyner and charged them with first-degree murder. Sharpe was a small-time drug dealer, and it would later come out that police had been trying for some time to arrest him on drug charges.

Joyner had a history of petty crimes and would ultimately enter an Alford plea in Radcliffe’s death to accessory after the fact (Under Alford pleas, defendants don’t admit guilt but acknowledge that the state has sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction.) Joyner was sentenced to five years in prison and paroled after nine months. He did not testify against Sharpe.

A month or so after Sharpe’s arrest, the police found another witness who placed Sharpe at the shooting. Her name was Beatrice Stokes. She was an addict who knew the lead officer on the case, Detective Ricky Best, because he had helped her out in the past. They met several times, but Best would later testify that he took no notes of their meetings or filed any reports on what she said.

There was no forensic evidence tying Sharpe to the crime scene. The police department’s fingerprint technician had waited at least three days to process Radcliffe’s truck, and because of that delay, only two prints suitable for comparison were found. The technician reported that neither Sharpe not Radcliffe was the source of either of those prints.

Sharpe’s trial in Pitt County Superior Court began in early July 1995. Judge Richard Parker had ordered both sides to disclose their witness lists ahead of the jury voir dire, but neither side did. Assistant District Attorney Clark Everett would say he had security concerns for his witnesses. While a private investigator hired by Sharpe’s attorney, R. Cherry Stokes, had learned that Johnson might be a witness, there was no knowledge of Beatrice Stokes (no relation). In addition, attorney Stokes was also unaware of Johnson’s history of hospitalization and mental illness.

Separately, just before the trial began, Stokes learned from a police officer that Sharpe had given a statement upon his arrest. Stokes asked Everett, and Everett told him he had checked and there wasn’t one. Then, during the jury voir dire, Everett handed him the statement, which was short and cryptic. Sharpe had allegedly said: “I can’t do it. You have to have the money straight up.” Stokes moved to suppress the statement. Parker denied the motion, but gave Stokes an extra hour to confer with Sharpe.

Johnson was a reluctant witness. On the morning of her testimony, she didn’t want to go to court. Everett told Parker she was an essential witness, and Parker asked the Greenville Police to place her in custody and bring her to the courtroom.

Johnson testified that Radcliffe had gone to buy $20 of cocaine but was $2 short. He and Sharpe argued face to face, she said, and then she heard two shots, “Boom. Boom.” But there were numerous problems in her testimony. She said that after the shooting, Joyner and Sharpe dragged Radcliffe into the compact pickup, then one or both of them climbed in on top of him and drove off. But she also said that the truck was facing in a different direction than what the crime scene reconstruction indicated. Under her account, for the truck to have wound up in the vacant lot, the driver jammed into the truck sitting on a body would have had to execute a U-turn on a narrow street just after shots were fired.

Stokes’s testimony was designed to corroborate Johnson. She said that she had seen Sharpe, Joyner, and Mercer talking to a white male, and that she recognized the truck because she had seen the driver before. Stokes said there was a shot, and everyone scattered. At one point in her testimony, she said she didn’t stick around to see where the truck went. At another point, she said she did and saw it had wound up in the vacant lot just past the stop sign. Stokes couldn’t remember the time of the shooting (which happened at 9:15 p.m.) and thought it might have been 4-5 a.m. In addition, she said it was likely she was high on cocaine at the time.

Dr. Mary Gilliland also testified for the state. She was filling in for the pathologist who had performed the autopsy because he had suffered a stroke. The bullet that killed Radcliffe, she said, had moved sideways, in a straight line, through his left arm and torso, before coming to rest in his right arm. In her opinion, whoever shot Radcliffe had shot him from the side.

Sharpe had two alibi witnesses, an aunt and her neighbor. They testified that Sharpe was with them for most of the evening, eating dinner and then visiting during the time when Radcliffe was shot.

Stokes tried to introduce the testimony of a woman named Tracy Highsmith. With the jury excused, she said that her boyfriend, Dameon Smith, had gone out on the night of the murder. When he came back a few hours later, he told her that he had encountered a man in a truck who wanted to buy drugs. He said he had robbed and shot the man but didn’t know whether he was alive. When he learned that Radcliffe had died, he became despondent, frequently repeating that he “he would kill himself before he (would) go to jail for killing a white man.” Smith killed himself on March 9, 1994.

This was hearsay evidence, but Stokes argued that it was allowed under an exception for statements made upon a belief of impending death. Parker ruled that exception didn’t apply, and the jury never heard this evidence.

Sharpe was convicted on July 17, 1995 and sentenced to life in prison.

He appealed his conviction, with his first appellate attorney arguing that Judge Parker had been wrong to exclude Highsmith’s testimony, not because of impending death, but because Smith’s utterances fell under an exception for statements made against one’s self-interest. The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the conviction on July 31, 1996, ruling that because Stokes hadn’t sought that exception at trial, it was impermissible to raise it on appeal.

Separately, Johnson had recanted her testimony, first approaching a paralegal who had been involved in Sharpe’s defense in late 1995. She said she had not seen the murder and that Detective Best had given her and her family money and gifts (Johnson had received $500 through Crime Stoppers). The paralegal listened but told her she needed to talk with Sharpe’s appellate attorneys, which Johnson eventually did in September 1996.

Sharpe’s attorneys filed a motion for appropriate relief in Pitt County Superior Court on February 14, 1997. Johnson’s recantation was the heart of the motion, but his new attorneys also asserted that Sharpe’s trial attorney had been ineffective because he had used the wrong hearsay exception in his efforts to get Highsmith’s testimony admitted.

Hearings were held before Judge W. Russell Duke Jr. In trying to assess the truthfulness of Johnson’s recantation, Sharpe’s attorneys pressed the police officers testifying about the circumstances of how the girl came to their attention. Officer Jeffrey Shrock testified he had first seen Johnson in very early March of 1994, when she ran out in front of his cruiser and then began cursing at him. He said he began talking with her, then took her home and talked with her mother as well. Shrock said he took Johnson to Pitt County Memorial Hospital, where he said she was evaluated and released. It was during this time period, he said, that she told Shrock she had witnessed the murder, mentioning Sharpe’s first name. That was in conflict with Johnson’s trial testimony, where she said Best was the first officer she told. Shrock said he waited two days before telling Best about the conversation, because he wasn’t sure if Johnson was telling the truth or just looking for attention.

What neither Best nor Shrock could adequately explain at the hearing was why there was a month-long gap between Shrock telling Best about Johnson’s statement, and the police first interviewing Johnson, which led to Sharpe’s immediate arrest.

During the hearing, Sharpe’s legal team still didn’t know of Johnson’s hospitalization, putting them at a disadvantage in trying to evaluate the timeline and also Johnson’s state of mind at the time she identified Sharpe as the shooter. The state had some of those records, as they had at trial, but didn’t disclose them.

Separately, Best was questioned about a polygraph test administered to Johnson two weeks after Sharpe’s arrest. He said he made her take the test because he wanted to be sure of her statement. She was brought to the local offices of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. He was asked during the hearing: “As far as you know, at the SBI Office she stuck by the same story?”

“Yes, sir,” Best answered. “The agent that gave her the polygraph test said that …”

Sharpe’s attorney objected, in an effort to keep Best from clarifying his remarks. Duke sustained the objection, and Best never answered the question directly.

Duke denied Sharpe’s motion on May 6, 1998. He didn’t believe Johnson’s recantation was credible, and he was satisfied with the police efforts to verify her testimony. That decision was upheld by the North Carolina Supreme Court on August 19, 1999.

Stokes recanted her testimony in May 2000, stating that she had seen the murder but only placed Sharpe there because she was upset at him from some earlier slight. She had tried to back out of testifying, she told a private investigator, but Best pressured her, in part by reminding her of the $200 in reward money she would receive. In December 2000, Stokes took back her recantation, telling a Greenville Police officer that Sharpe’s mother and the private detective had offered her $1,000 to change her testimony.

After the 1999 ruling by the state’s supreme court, Sharpe’s attorneys moved their efforts to the federal courts, filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court on December 20, 1999. Although originally meant to address Sharpe’s claims of wrongful conviction based on ineffective assistance of counsel and on Johnson’s recantation, a new witness to the shooting had come forward just before hearings were to begin in early 2000. Dearl Powell said he was living with his mother on West Sixth Street and was outside on the night of the shooting. He said he saw the truck stop just before the intersection. Mercer was in the passenger seat and a white man was driving. After the truck stopped, Powell said, he saw Dameon Smith approach the truck on the driver’s side. Powell said that Mercer and Smith were like father and son. A man named Omar Moore was nearby, as was Beatrice Stokes. The driver never left the truck, and after five or 10 minutes of arguing and cursing, a single shot rang out and everyone scattered. Powell said he ran home and didn’t tell anybody what he saw.

Powell testified at the hearing, but before he could be cross-examined by the state, Judge Terrence Boyle of U.S. District Court remanded the case back to the North Carolina courts, ruling on March 15, 2001 that they were the better venue for evaluating Powell’s statements. Judge Duke again presided over the hearing on a new motion for appropriate relief and ruled against Sharpe, stating that Powell’s statements lacked credibility.

Sharpe turned back to the federal courts. Eventually, in 2009, his petition for a writ of habeas corpus was granted, after Boyle agreed that Sharpe’s trial attorney had been ineffective by raising the wrong hearsay exception in trying to admit Highsmith’s testimony. But the state appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed Boyle on January 29, 2010, writing that he had overstepped his bounds in trying to reinterpret North Carolina’s hearsay exceptions and by giving too much credence to Powell’s statements.

After that decision, Sharpe’s appeals were handled by the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke Law School, which in 2014 filed a broad-ranged new motion for appropriate relief. It asserted first that Shrock and Best had either committed perjury or been extremely disingenuous in their testimony at the 2007 evidentiary hearings, and second that the state had committed substantial violations under the rules established by the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brady v. Maryland, which requires disclosure of exculpatory evidence to the defense.

Much of the motion revolved around newly obtained medical records for Johnson during the two-month period between Radcliffe’s murder and Sharpe’s arrest. She had been hospitalized in an adolescent psychiatric unit from February 17 to March 10. Shrock had testified at the hearing that he had first met Johnson either March 3 or March 4, and he said that when he took her to the hospital, she was evaluated and then released. Both of those statements were false, and Shrock would later acknowledge their falsity in an affidavit.

The hospital records painted a profound picture of an emotionally unstable girl whose tumble had started with the death of her grandfather and then relocation to Greenville a year earlier. Nowhere in any of the treatment notes written by Johnson’s healthcare team did she mention ever witnessing a murder. In addition, Johnson was beaten up by a group of young women who were friends of Sharpe’s on April 7, 1994, the day she gave the incriminating statements. She was taken to the hospital, where she said the attack was because of “lies told in the past.” Critically, when the young women were arrested, four of the five said Johnson was beaten because she lied, not because she “snitched.”

Separately, Sharpe’s attorneys had been finally able to obtain some records on the SBI polygraph test. The original examiner had marked them “inconclusive,” despite Best’s testimony that he was satisfied with the results. In their motion, Sharpe’s attorneys stopped short of saying that Best had lied, but said his statements were “unquestionably deliberately deceptive and intended to undermine Charlene’s recantation.”

Judge Duke held no hearings. On May 8, 2014, his last day in office, he denied Sharpe’s motion.

Four years later, on June 6, 2018, Sharpe’s attorneys filed another motion for appropriate relief, citing new evidence relating to the trial testimony of Dr. Gilliland. She had testified about the single, lateral bullet wound that killed Radcliffe, and Sharpe’s attorneys had long understood that was in conflict with Johnson’s testimony of a face-to-face shooting. Gilliland had declined repeated requests to reexamine her testimony. After she appeared in a television documentary on the case, however, she agreed to review the trial material for Sharpe’s attorneys and answer the question of whether it was possible for Radcliffe to be shot in the manner described by Johnson.

In doing so, the attorneys made a key discovery. The state had never told Gilliland about Johnson’s testimony. Nor had they consulted with her about whether the forensic evidence fit the theory of the crime. In an affidavit, Gilliland said that had these events happened, she would have testified that the state’s theory was medically and scientifically impossible.

An evidentiary hearing was held on May 17, 2019. The state argued that Gilliland’s findings were essentially rehashes of what was said at trial. A week after the hearing, Sharpe’s attorneys amended their motion. They argued that if Gilliland was so clear in her trial testimony that it was impossible for the murder to have taken place the way Johnson described it, then the prosecutor was obligated to correct Johnson’s false testimony.

On August 22, 2019, after a second evidentiary hearing, Judge G. Bryan Collins Jr. of Pitt County Superior Court granted Sharpe’s motion for appropriate relief and vacated his conviction. He wrote that Gilliland’s testimony “destroys the State’s entire theory of the case. This new evidence is of such a nature that a different result will probably be reached at a new trial and that the right will prevail.”

After the ruling, Pitt County District Attorney Faris Dixon said he would not seek a retrial, writing later that “it would be impossible for the state to prove the case against Dontae Sharpe at this time with no eyewitness or forensic evidence to prove he committed the murder beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Sharpe was 44 years old when he was released. During the 24 years he was in prison, he had rejected several plea offers that would have given him a lesser sentence. He told the Associated Press, “My momma always told me if you didn't do something, don't own up to it. Don't say you did it." He said his faith provided the “positivity to help me when I was around all that negativity.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 9/12/2019
State:North Carolina
County:Pitt
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1994
Convicted:1995
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No