He spent two decades in prison for church murders he didn’t commit. Newly discovered DNA evidence helped exonerate him
Newly discovered DNA evidence from a hair sample shows Dennis A. Berry, 59, “may have been acquitted if such evidence had been available” during his 2003 trial for the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain in Georgia, according to a press release from the Glenn District Attorney’s Office. Keith Higgins.
Perry, of Camden County, Georgia, was sentenced to life in prison twice in a row after his arrest in 2000. His subsequent conviction was overturned in July, and Higgins’ office announced Monday that prosecutors would not retry him.
“It took a long time, but I never gave up,” Berry said in a press release on Monday. “I knew someone else would eventually see the truth, and I am so grateful for the Georgia Innocence and King & Spalding project. [law firm] To highlight the truth. This indictment has been hanging over my head for more than 20 years, and it is a relief to finally have to worry about being accused of such a terrible thing.”
The DNA evidence includes a pair of glasses found at the crime scene in 1985, according to the press release. Investigators found that the glasses had two killer hairs stuck in the hinges.
In February 2020, private investigators working for Perry were able to obtain a hair sample from a Brantley County woman who is the mother of a man involved in the 1985 Swain murders, but he has not been charged, according to the county attorney’s news release. Her hair sample was then examined by the same laboratory that performed DNA testing on hair in the glasses in 2001 and matched those features, prompting the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to reopen the case in light of the new evidence.
Mitochondrial DNA testing using these hair samples was performed prior to Berry’s 2003 experiment and ruled it out as a possible contributor to hair; However, the statement said, he was convicted of using circumstantial evidence at trial.
On the evening of the murders, Swens was in Bible study at Rising Daughter’s Baptist Church in Waverley, according to a news release from the Georgia Innocence Project.
Just before 9 p.m., an attendee left the meeting and found a man inside the vestibule of the church as it was leaving and asked to speak with Harold Swain, 66. She returned inside the prayer meeting to fetch him and left the church, Higgins’ press release said. Witnesses said they heard a “fight,” followed by four gunshots.
Thelma, 63, heard the shooting and ran into the vestibule – that’s when the killer shot her once. By the time the other meeting attendees ran to the rear of the church, the killer was gone.
The case quickly turned cold, Higgins’ statement said, but the Camden County Sheriff’s Office reopened it in 1998, according to a statement from the Georgia Patent Project.
Within a week, authorities identified Perry as the prime suspect based on testimony from an informant who wanted a $25,000 reward and ultimately $12,000 for the testimony — something that was never disclosed to Perry’s lawyers, according to a Georgia Innocence Project statement. .
Higgins said he consulted with the GBI and the victim’s family, and both agreed with his decision not to prosecute Perry.
“There are times when seeking justice means righting wrong,” said Higgins, who took office on January 1. “While this case has been prosecuted before my administration, new evidence indicates that another person killed Harold and Thelma Swain. Mr. Perry is now, and has been, since July 2020, a free man. We will continue to examine all evidence in the case – new and old – as we determine the next step in this investigation. “.
Rebuild, reconnect and adapt from scratch
Since his release from prison, Perry has been spending time at home with his wife, Brenda, and reconnecting with friends and family, in an effort to recover and readjust to this new chapter of his life, says the press release from the Georgia Innocence Project.
The federal standard for compensation for those wrongfully convicted is a minimum of $50,000 a year in prison, plus an additional amount for each year spent on death row. Of the 36 states that have compensation laws, nine make more than $50,000 a year — including Washington, which gives $200,000 a year, according to the Patent Project.
CNN’s Rebecca Reese and Shenelle Terry contributed to this report.