A man convicted in the 1985 murder of an elderly black couple at a church in north Camden County has maintained his innocence since his arrest two decades ago.
Now, DNA evidence may free Dennis Perry, arrested in 2000 and convicted in 2003 for the shooting deaths of Harold and Thelma Swain at Rising Daughter Baptist Church in the Spring Bluff community.
The Georgia Innocence Project and King & Spalding Law Firm filed a motion for a new trial in the Glynn County Courthouse earlier this week on behalf of Perry. King & Spalding is providing Perry’s legal representation pro bono.
District Attorney Jackie Johnson was an assistant district attorney working in the Camden County office, but she had nothing to do with the prosecution. Superior Court Judge Stephen Kelley was the district attorney at the time and John Johnson prosecuted the case.
Jackie Johnson said she talked with Perry’s lawyer before the motion was filed. She said she would have to review the original evidence before she made a decision, but she said it’s likely a Perry’s motion will be heard soon.
One challenge is trying to assemble a jury pool with social distancing.
“We’re used to picking a couple of hundred jurors at a time,” she said. “With the virus situation, we’re at a standstill right now.”
But Johnson said she plans to review the case as soon as possible.
“I think we’ll get it scheduled sooner than later,” she said. “One of our judges will get this case.”
The appeal is welcome news to Joe Gregory, one of the deputies with the Camden County Sheriff’s Office called to the church the night of the shootings. He is among three investigators named in the appeal who expressed doubt Perry committed the murders.
Gregory, in a phone interview from his home in Arizona on Thursday, played an active role in the investigation. He said he never believed Perry was involved in the murders.
“I knew he was innocent from the get go,” he said. “Obviously, 90 percent of the testimony went over the jury’s head.”
The trial was going so bad in the minds of prosecutors that Perry was offered to be released from jail with time served if he agreed to plead guilty to the charges, Gregory said.
Perry refused the offer, maintaining his innocence.
“He didn’t do it. He wasn’t the type of guy to plead guilty to something he didn’t do,” Gregory said.
Late in the trial, Perry’s mother also said her son received the offer but did not want to go through life as a convicted murderer for a crime he didn’t commit.
Perry was quickly ruled out as a suspect in the initial investigation because his hair sample didn’t match the DNA found in the glasses.
Gregory also believes it would have been “impossible” for Perry to drive from his job in Jonesboro, in the metropolitan Atlanta area, to the church where the shooting occurred around 9:30 p.m. because he didn’t clock out until after 5 p.m.
According to the appeal, a man questioned early after the murders has now been identified as a suspect based on new DNA evidence.
The man was a prime suspect in the shootings and wore a pair of distinctive boots that witnesses at the church said the shooter was wearing.
The evidence also showed Perry had 20/20 vision at the time and the refraction in the glasses did not match Perry’s eye geometry, leading investigators to exclude him as a suspect.
Investigators with Georgia Innocence Project obtained a voluntary hair sample from the mother of the new suspect in March. The test showed the suspect’s mother had the same mitochondrial DNA profile as the hair from the glasses. The test results conclude with “99.6 percent confidence” that the mother’s son “cannot be excluded” as a suspect.
The key evidence that led to the conviction was the testimony of the mother of Perry’s former girlfriend who said he claimed he killed the couple. She was paid a $12,000 reward for the information that led to Perry’s conviction. The jury was never told about the payment, Gregory said.
Perry’s lawyers believe the new DNA evidence satisfies Georgia’s requirements for granting the motion for a new trial.
Lawyers filing the motion argue it’s likely Perry, 58, would not have been convicted or even prosecuted for the murders if the new evidence had been available at the time.
“The state had no physical evidence linking Mr. Perry to this crime,” the appeal said. “The new DNA evidence strongly supports Mr. Perry’s innocence and most probably would have resulted in a different outcome had it been available at the time of his trial.”