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Dennis Perry

Other Georgia Exonerations
Just before 9 p.m. on March 11, 1985, a young, white man walked into the Rising Daughter Baptist Church on U.S. 17, just outside the small town of Waverly, Georgia. A bible study group was meeting.

Vanzola Williams encountered the man in the church vestibule as she was leaving and asked him if he needed help. She said the man stuck his head through the swinging doors that separated the vestibule from the sanctuary and said he wanted to speak to “him,” motioning to 66-year-old Harold Swain, a church deacon and a pulpwood harvester. Williams walked into the sanctuary to get Swain, and they both returned to the vestibule, where Swain and the man began to talk. Williams then left to go to her car.

The eight remaining women in the sanctuary heard what sounded like a scuffle, then four quick shots. Harold’s wife, 63-year-old Thelma Swain, ran into the vestibule, where she was shot. The women tried to call 911, but the telephone didn’t work; the line had been cut. Harold and Thelma Swain died from their injuries.

The murders of two Black parishioners in their church by a white man made national news. Initially, the case was investigated by the Camden County Sheriff’s Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). The nine women gave varied descriptions of the shooter. While they all agreed that he was a young, white man, they disagreed on more specific features, including the color of his hair, whether he had a mustache, and whether he wore glasses.

Eventually, the descriptions given by four of the women were incorporated into a single composite drawing made by a police sketch artist. The drawing, which showed a man with shoulder-length blonde hair, was widely distributed in local and national media.

Investigators found three pairs of eyeglasses in the vestibule. Two belonged to the Swains. The third pair, which did not belong to anyone at the church, appeared to be safety glasses, with pitted areas suggesting they were worn by a welder or machinist, and the prescription lenses indicated extreme near-sightedness.

In July 1985, the principal investigators on the case, Camden County Deputy Butch Kennedy and GBI Agent Joe Gregory, caught an apparent break. A state trooper in Telfair County, about two hours northwest of Camden County, arrested Donnie Barrentine, David Roberson, and Jeffrey Kittrell after finding marijuana and a machine gun during a traffic stop.

Kittrell told the officers that Barrentine had bragged about killing a black preacher and his wife at a church. He said that Barrentine had shown up at a party about a month after the shooting with a blond-haired friend who wore glasses. Kittrell said there was a great deal of drinking and drug use at the party, and that Barrentine called his friend “God” because, he said, “God can take man off this earth.”

The officers prepared a live lineup for Williams that included Barrentine. She said, “I’m sure that’s him, but I’m not positive, but I am positive those are the boots he had on in the church that night.”

Separately, Barrentine took a polygraph test, and the examiner reported that he showed deception in his answers. In addition, Barrentine’s supervisor at the dishwasher factory where he worked in Marianna, Florida, said Barrentine had punched out of work at about 3:30 on March 11 and didn’t show up the next day. Marianna, in the Florida Panhandle, was a little over four hours away from Waverly.

A private investigator named Glenn “Dixie” Foster interviewed Barrentine on behalf of the officers in August 1985. At the time, Foster was retired from the Georgia State Police and considered an expert in interrogations, teaching interview techniques at police academies around the country.

Foster would later say that Barrentine made statements that implicated himself as either the shooter or a person who was there during the crime. Foster said that Barrentine described the scuffle between Swain and the shooter and said the murder weapon was thrown into a body of water.

Foster told Kennedy and Gregory they “had their guy.” He compiled the notes from his interview into a report and gave it to Glenn Thomas, the district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial District, which included Camden County. Separately, Kennedy and Gregory forwarded their findings to Thomas and drew up an arrest warrant. But Thomas never executed the warrant. Gregory would later say that Thomas told him he did not want to prosecute a case where the state’s witnesses were the “dope-head and teenage prostitute” partygoers who had heard Barrentine bragging about the murders.

Gregory and Kennedy continued investigating. Around 1988, they received a tip to check out a young man named Dennis Perry. He had previously lived in Camden County with his grandparents, whose house was about a mile from the church.

At the time of the murders, Perry was living in Jonesboro, Georgia, near Atlanta, and working at a concrete-products company. The officers talked to a co-worker who gave Perry rides to work. He said that Perry had worked late on March 11, making it impossible for him to make the four-hour drive to Waverly by 9 p.m. In addition, Perry didn’t own a car.

Still, in an effort to tie off loose ends, the officers prepared a six-pack photo array including Perry that they showed to Williams. She did not identify Perry.

The case ran cold for many years. Because of the brutal nature of the shootings, the age of the victims, and the racial element of the crime, the case continued to receive attention on national crime shows, such as Unsolved Mysteries.

At some point in the early 1990s, a woman named Jane Beaver became involved in the case. Her daughter, Carol Ann Rabon, had dated Perry, and Beaver believed that Perry looked like the man in the composite sketch. Beaver began talking with the witnesses, including Cora Fisher and Williams, showing them a photo of Perry taken by her daughter. She would later say that Fisher and Williams each said that the photo of Perry looked like the shooter.

In 1998, the Camden County Sheriff’s Office reopened the investigation, using forfeited drug money to hire Deputy Dale Bundy on a contract basis. His only assignment was the Swain murders. Bundy reviewed the case file and began re-interviewing witnesses.

When he talked with Fisher, she told him about the visit from Beaver and the photograph Beaver showed her. Fisher didn’t know Perry’s name, but she said the man in the photo was the grandson of a neighbor and that she had seen him staring at her house several times.

Bundy was able to figure out that Fisher was referring to Perry, who was mentioned in the case file – although the report establishing his alibi was absent – and he got a mugshot of Perry to show around. On July 14, 1998, according to Bundy’s report, he showed that photo to Fisher, and she said it was the same person that was in the photo Beaver had shown her. Two days later, according to his report, Bundy showed the photo to Williams. His report said, “She also identified him as the suspect in the Rising Daughter Church.”

A week later, Bundy located Jane Beaver. He would later write that her first words to him were: “Well, it took you long enough to find me, come in and I will tell you what you need to know.”

According to Bundy’s report, Beaver told him that three weeks before the murder, Perry had said that he tried to borrow money from a black man who lived near his grandfather and that the man laughed in his face. The report said, “Perry stated to Ms. Beaver, ‘I’m going to kill that n------.’”

Bundy interviewed Perry at his home in Atlantic Beach, Florida, near Jacksonville, on August 20, 1998. The interview was not recorded. Perry said he didn’t own a gun, had never met Harold Swain, and was in the Atlanta area at the time of the murders. But, according to Bundy’s report, Perry also said that Harold Swain had “big pulpwooder hands.”

Perry was interviewed by Bundy and GBI Agent Ronald Rhodes on February 17, 1999. This time he said he didn’t think he had been back to Camden County since moving away in November 1984. He again denied any involvement in the murders. This interview was recorded.

Bundy, Rhodes, and a Florida police officer arrested Perry, who was now 38 years old, on January 13, 2000, as he was coming home from work. They brought him to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement office in Jacksonville. They interviewed him for several hours but did not record it. According to Rhodes’s report, about two hours after the interview started, Perry said that he “could have taken a motorcycle trip down to Camden County around the time of the murder” and later “indicate[d] he did ride a motorcycle down to Camden County with his brother the weekend before the shooting occurred.”

According to the report, Perry told the officers that he was drinking and taking drugs and could not remember a lot about what happened but that he could have been at the church that night.

The report said that Perry agreed that “if he could put everything back together that happened, to make it right” he would. Then, according to the report, Perry told the officers “You’re trying to put words in my mouth.” He declined to answer further questions.

Rhodes created his report from notes he took during the interview, but he shredded those notes after completing the report. He would later testify this was done “to make sure it was the same, one and the same.”

As the case moved to trial, the state struck an immunity deal with Barrentine on February 22, 2002. The filing on the arrangement said that Barrentine was a witness to the murders and that his testimony was necessary to the public interest. When Perry’s attorneys, Dale Westling and Edward Clary, learned about this agreement, they were given a copy of a videotaped interview that several officers conducted with Barrentine the day he was granted immunity. During the interview, Barrentine was asked if he had ever confessed to a man named “Dixie Foster.” A deputy then quickly interjected, “Just kidding.”

Westling asked Chief Assistant District Attorney John Johnson for any information on that interview with Foster. He never received a response.

The trial, which was moved from Camden County to neighboring Glynn County in the same judicial district, began on February 10, 2003. Perry was charged with two counts of malice murder and faced the death penalty if convicted.

There was no forensic or physical evidence linking Perry to the crime, and in the years between the murders and Perry’s arrest, several pieces of evidence had been lost. This included the third pair of eyeglasses, two soda bottles found outside the church, a button found near the scuffle between Swain and the shooter, and a smudged mirror.

While the glasses themselves were gone, investigators had preserved three hair samples from tape found on the glasses. A forensic laboratory did a DNA analysis on the samples in 2001. Perry was excluded as a contributor to two of the samples. The third sample was too small to analyze. In addition, the prescription of the lenses didn’t match Perry’s vision. The prosecution and defense stipulated these facts before trial.

Three women from Rising Daughter testified about the shooting. But only Williams said that a photo she had seen of Perry looked like the shooter. She did not make an in-court identification. Williams had also picked Barrentine out of a lineup in 1985, but now said she didn’t remember doing that. Nor did she remember excluding Perry in a later lineup. Fisher was too sick to testify, but a court official read her deposition to jurors. She recalled Beaver showing her Perry’s photo and nearly fainting.

Beaver’s daughter, Carol Ann Rabon, testified that she and Perry had dated off and on. She said that he called her on March 10, 1985, and said that he was in Camden County, but was quickly headed back to Jonesboro. She said he told her that he had ridden down on the back of his brother’s motorcycle.

But Perry’s brother, Daniel Perry, said that wasn’t true. He said that in the weeks before the murder, he had left the U.S. Army and was in the process of moving his family from North Carolina to Jonesboro. He said he and Dennis never rode to Camden County during that time period.

Beaver testified about her long-standing interest in the case. She said that she had called the sheriff’s office numerous times to report her suspicions about Perry, but that deputies never called her back. There were no records of those calls.

By all accounts, Perry didn’t own a car in 1985, and the state’s case had a hole because it was unclear how Perry could have gotten to the church or left after the shooting without being seen. Beaver supplied the answer. She testified that Perry walked a firebreak between the church and his grandfather’s house.

This detail wasn’t present in any of the pre-trial discovery material, and Beaver hadn’t mentioned it in her testimony at depositions or at earlier hearings. Westling objected. He said it was impossible for him to investigate whether that firebreak even existed 18 years earlier. But Judge Amanda Williams of Glynn County Superior Court allowed the testimony. Johnson said he had only learned about this information a few moments before Beaver took the stand.

Beaver’s testimony about Perry’s purported motive for the crime, to get back at an elderly black man who had disrespected him, resonated with the jury. She said that Perry told her, “I always wondered what it was like to kill a n----- and now I’m going to get me one.” Johnson would later write in his trial notes that most of the jury “looked at the defendant with a hint of shock and disgust.”

Perry did not testify. His defense focused on presenting Barrentine as a viable alternate suspect and on proving his alibi, a task that was hampered by Gregory and Kennedy’s missing report. The state successfully objected to Gregory’s testimony about Perry’s alibi, saying it was hearsay because Gregory couldn’t produce the report.

Barrentine testified as a defense witness. Although his immunity agreement said he was a witness to the murders, Barrentine now testified that he wasn’t there and had no involvement. Neither Westling nor Johnson asked Barrentine whether he knew Perry. In addition, Westling asked Barrentine if he had ever confessed to a man named Dixie Foster. Barrentine said, “Not that I know of.” Without any more information on Foster’s involvement in the case, Westling moved on.

Kittrell and another witness each testified about the statements Barrentine made at the party back in 1985. Johnson attempted to discredit their testimony by suggesting they were either drunk or on drugs at the time and that whatever Barrentine might have said was just the lies of a man who liked to brag about how tough he was.

Perry’s key alibi witness was Charlie Williamson, who had been Perry’s neighbor and worked with him at Allied Products in Jonesboro, Georgia. Williamson testified that Perry didn’t have a car and they left together for work every morning at 5:30. Although March 11, 1985, had been nearly 20 years earlier, he remembered taking Perry to work that day and bringing him home after they left the concrete plant around 5 p.m. The date was clear to him, Williamson said, because a few days later he was reading an article in the newspaper about the Swain murders and saw the composite sketch, which looked like Perry.

Edward Clary, Perry’s other attorney, asked Williamson if he mentioned that to Perry. “Yeah. I was kidding him about it,” Williamson said. “He had a twin brother.”

The jury convicted Perry of two counts of malice murder on February 14, 2003. Prior to the sentencing phase of the trial, Perry agreed to give up his right to appeal the conviction and sentence in exchange for the state not seeking the death penalty. He was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life in prison.

While it was not clear whether Perry’s agreement barred any type of post-conviction review or simply a narrower direct appeal, he filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Mitchell County Superior Court on October 14, 2003, challenging whether his consent to the sentencing agreement had been made voluntarily. A judge denied his petition in 2005, and the Georgia Supreme Court later upheld the denial.

In March 2014, the Georgia Innocence Project began representing Perry. In 2015, the organization moved for post-conviction DNA testing of several pieces of evidence. The court granted the motion, and the GBI tested five shirt buttons, five shell casings, and three segments of telephone wire. None contained sufficient DNA for analysis.

In 2018, the Georgia Innocence Project began collaborating with Susan Simpson, a lawyer, reporter, and co-producer of the podcast, Undisclosed. They discovered evidence that cast doubt on Perry’s conviction and hadn’t been disclosed to his attorneys. First, Beaver had asked for and received reward money from the Camden County Sheriff’s Office. Her first request came January 14, 2000, the day after Perry’s arrest. After Perry’s conviction, she received $12,000. Beaver died in 2018.

Second, Simpson tracked down Foster, who had moved out of the country prior to Perry’s arrest. He confirmed that he had created a report about Barrentine and given it to Thomas. Foster said that after Thomas rejected Barrentine’s arrest warrant, he appealed to the Georgia Attorney General and the GBI for help. They declined to intervene.

While Perry’s attorneys knew about Foster from the video, they didn’t have his report, and were unable to impeach Barrentine when he said he hadn’t made admissions to Foster.

Third, the accuracy of the composite sketch came under scrutiny. It had been created by committee, from information supplied by four witnesses. Williams had testified that the four women agreed on the final product. But one of the women, Gwen Owens, told Bundy in 1998 that the composite did not resemble the shooter. That was also not disclosed to Perry’s attorneys.

Working with pro bono attorneys from the King & Spalding law firm, the Georgia Innocence Project filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Coffee County Superior Court on June 10, 2019, claiming that the failure to turn over this exculpatory evidence violated Perry’s right to a fair trial.

While that petition was pending, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Joshua Sharpe began investigating other potential suspects. One of those was a man named Erik Sparre, who came to the attention of investigators after his former father-in-law shared a recording of a telephone call where Sparre said, “I’m the mother f---er that killed the two n---ers in that church and I’m going to kill you and the whole damn family if I have to do it in a church.” Sparre’s ex-wife told investigators that the glasses found at the crime scene looked like a pair he had owned. Sparre was arrested, and investigators searched his house. But no evidence was found, and he was released.

In addition, a man named “Donald Mobley” called the GBI and said he was Sparre’s manager at the Winn-Dixie supermarket in Brunswick, Georgia. The man said that Sparre had worked an overnight shift on March 11, 1985, punching in at 3 p.m. and not leaving until after 6:30 a.m. on March 12.

But the newspaper’s reporting cast doubt on that alibi. Mobley’s personal information in the report – including telephone numbers, birth date and address – didn’t match anybody by that name. Using public records, the newspaper tracked down the store manager. His name was David Mobley. He said Sparre didn’t work at the store, and he had never spoken with the GBI.

On February 24, 2020, the Georgia Innocence Project obtained a hair sample from Gladys Sparre, Erik Sparre’s mother. It was submitted for mitochondrial DNA testing at the same laboratory that examined the hair samples from the eyeglasses in 2001. Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mothers to their children, meaning both generations have the same mitochondrial profile.

The lab reported that Gladys Sparre’s sample – and therefore any sample from Erik Sparre – had the same mitochondrial DNA profile as the samples from the glasses.

On April 27, 2020, Perry’s legal team used this DNA evidence as the basis for filing a motion for a new trial in Glynn County Superior Court.

On May 12, 2020, Jackie Johnson, the district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit requested that the GBI re-open the case.

On July 17, 2020, Chief Judge Stephen Scarlett of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit vacated Perry’s conviction. He said that a close examination of the trial record showed Perry had only waived his right to direct appeal—which is generally limited to claims of error that occurred during the trial—and was therefore entitled to pursue this claim based on new evidence of innocence. “Even if Defendant had waived his right to post-conviction relief,” Scarlett wrote, “the Court finds that applying a procedural bar to Defendant’s motion given the compelling nature of the DNA evidence and the extraordinary circumstances of his case, would be a miscarriage of justice and contrary to the public policy of this state.”

Perry was released from prison July 23, 2020. District Attorney Johnson said her office wanted to wait for the GBI to finish its investigation before making a determination on whether to retry Perry.

Johnson lost her bid for reelection in 2020. On July 19, 2021, Keith Higgins, her successor, told Judge Scarlett that he was there to “right a wrong.” He said he had met with the relatives of the Swains, and that they supported his motion to dismiss the charges against Perry.

After Perry told the court that he prayed every day for justice for the Swains, Scarlett dismissed his charges. The GBI’s investigation continued. No charges have been brought against Erik Sparre.

Outside the courthouse, Perry spoke to reporters and friends about all he had lost in prison. “It was all taken from me," he said. "At this time in my life, I should be able to have my finances in order so my wife and I can think about retirement. Instead, I have no income. My health is no good, and I must start all over again. I am grateful this part of the nightmare is behind me. Yet I will deal every day with what happened to me."

In January 2022, Georgia legislators filed a bill to pay Perry $1.4 million in compensation for his wrongful conviction. The bill enacted into law in April 2022 paid him $1.23 million.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 8/9/2021
Last Updated: 4/11/2022
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1985
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:23
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes