Judge could decide soon on new trial in 1985 Georgia murders

Posted at 2:02 PM, July 17, 2020 and last updated 3:35 PM, July 20, 2023

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — A judge says he could decide by Friday whether a Georgia man should get a new trial in the 1985 shooting deaths of a husband and wife.

Dennis Perry is serving two life sentences for the killings of Harold and Thelma Swain, who were slain inside Rising Daughters Baptist Church in Camden County. The 58-year-old Perry has been in prison for 20 years on a life sentence. But his attorneys are seeking a new trial after DNA evidence emerged tying another suspect to the crime scene.

The state, though, argued at a Monday hearing that Perry can’t seek a new trial because he signed an agreement to forgo appeals as part of an agreement to a life sentence after his conviction, avoiding a possible death penalty.

“He waived all appeal rights,” The Brunswick News reports Assistant District Attorney John Johnson as saying. He led the prosecution in Perry’s 2003 conviction.

Perry has denied involvement in the deaths since his January 2000 arrest. Perry was convicted in 2003 largely on the testimony of his ex-girlfriend’s mother, who said Perry had told her he planned to kill Harold Swain. The state didn’t disclose to the defense that the woman was paid $12,000 in reward money for her testimony.

Joe Gregory, a GBI agent assigned to the case in 1985, testified that he ruled out Perry after determining it would have been “virtually impossible” for him to be in Camden County at the time of the crime. Perry worked in metro Atlanta area and didn’t leave his job until after 5:30 p.m. The shootings occurred at 8:40 p.m.

“In my opinion, we cleared Mr. Perry and we moved on to other suspects,” he said.

New evidence suggests that 57-year-old Erik Sparre could be involved.

Perry’s attorneys conducted a DNA test that now ties him to the scene after reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found Sparre may have faked his alibi claiming he was at work at a supermarket. The then-manager, who testified Monday, said he didn’t recall talking to authorities. He said a sworn statement filed with investigators that included his Social Security number is not from him.

The DNA test linking Sparre to hairs in a pair of glasses found inches from the bodies led Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson to ask the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to reopen the murder investigation, which is ongoing.

Forensic examiner Gloria Dimick said Perry’s DNA doesn’t match the hair, but a sample from Sparre’s mother does match. Dimick said the new evidence does not prove Sparre is guilty but said “he could not be excluded.”

Chad Head, the brother of Sparre’s first wife, who died in 2013, testified Monday that he remembered Sparre calling the family home in 1986, spewing profanity and saying he killed the Swains. He also used a racial slur. The Swains were Black; Sparre, who has said he’s innocent, is white. The words Head said he recalled were similar to those his family told police that Sparre used in 1986.

As police records indicate, Head said the call was recorded. He said relatives gave it to Camden County sheriff’s deputies. The tape now is among evidence that is missing.

Sparre’s second wife, Rhonda Tyson, testified that Sparre told her one day in the late 1980s that he killed the Swains.

“I was laying on the floor. He was straddling me with his hands on my throat,” Tyson testified. She recounted that Sparre said: “I will kill you like I killed those n-words in the church in Camden County.”

Andrew Ekonomou, a lawyer for the state, repeatedly objected to testimony not related to DNA evidence because the judge isn’t deciding who killed the Swains. Instead, Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett must decide whether the DNA test linking Sparre to the scene would have resulted in a different verdict at Perry’s 2003 trial.