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22 years later, convicted murderer maintains innocence

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Sarah Blakely holds a photo that survived flooding during Hurricane Floyd of her son, Dontae Sharpe, when he was a boy. For nearly 23 years, Blakely has been protesting Sharpe's murder conviction and maintaining his innocence and working to have him freed.

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Sharieka Breeden
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, May 15, 2016

SMITHFIELD — Dontae Sharpe sat in a visitation room at Johnson Correctional Institution and repeated something he has said for 22 years: ”I didn’t kill that white dude.”

On July 27, 1995, Sharpe was convicted of murdering 33-year-old George Radcliffe and sentenced to life in prison without parole. He was 20 at the time and has maintained his innocence since his arrest, declining to enter guilty pleas in exchange for reduced sentences that would have had him out by now.

Sharpe sat in the visitation room on April 27, wearing a gray T-shirt, white New Balance sneakers and green pants. He said he avoids violence. He gestured to his pants and said the clothing indicates he is part of the honor grade, where inmates are placed when ”you do everything you’re supposed to do.”

The color signals that Sharpe is in minimum custody and does not require armed supervision, according to the state Department of Correction handbook. Sharpe has not had a write-up, or an infraction, since 1995, when he was involved in a fight. He’s angry about his sentence, he said, but he focuses on not letting that anger drive him to violence.

“Even though I am here, I try to use it for good,” Sharpe said. He describes himself as a devout Bible reader and gospel enthusiast. He kept a scrapbook of prisoners across the country who were freed after it was found they were wrongfully convicted, but he was unable to keep up with it as more and more cases surfaced.

Still, the exonerations give him hope that he, too, might be freed after spending years imprisoned for a crime he says he did not commit.

“Even though they say everybody says that when they come to prison and the climate we are in now with this legal system ... if somebody has been hollering that for 20 years, you should pay attention to them,” Sharpe said. “They are not going to holler for 20 years when they’ve had chances to get out. If I was guilty, I would’ve went home on one of those pleas. They can tell me I can go home today with a plea and I am not doing it. I won’t go home. That’s settled. That’s why I turned down the other ones.”

Now, Theresa Newman, a clinical professor of law at Duke University and co-director of the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic, and Jamie Lau, who also works for the clinic, are looking into Sharpe’s case. The state NAACP also has joined the effort.

Newman said former Pitt County Judge Rusty Duke on Feb. 29 signed an order denying the most recent motion for appropriate relief which was filed on May 8, 2014. The motion was the third to be filed in the case. Since the denial, attorneys are weighing their options, including whether to petition the case back to federal court or file a motion for reconsideration.

The murder

Sharpe remembers Friday, Feb. 11, 1994, as a regular day. 

He and a friend went to a home in Grimesland and visited with some other friends, he said. Some women who lived there were making them lasagna, and Sharpe joked with them about their cooking. Later he returned to his aunt’s house in Greenville. It was there he learned someone had been killed.

About 9:30 p.m. Radcliffe, who by some accounts had been looking to buy drugs, was shot through the arm and chest in the area of Sheppard and Sixth Streets. He was found slumped over the wheel of his white pickup truck.

Sharpe’s aunt told him his girlfriend had been looking for him because she thought it had been him who was shot. He and his friend drove into the area of the New Town house development. ”I saw all the police and I said, ‘Man, something did happen.’”

The girl he was dating came up behind him and said, “’Boy, I thought it was you ... All y’all be on the corner, I thought it was you.’”

Sharpe was a drug dealer at the time and stayed busy on the street corners plying his trade. He said he wasn’t keeping a close track of time that night, but he wasn’t on the corner when Radcliffe got shot.

He and his girlfriend returned to his aunt’s house. ”We watched it on the news. And it showed that somebody got killed.”

Sharpe said he remembers curfews being enforced after the murder, and police presence seemed heavier. He and others were questioned about the shooting.

Sharpe’s cousin was taken to jail and questioned. When he returned, he told Sharpe that police were saying they had something to do with the murder.

He felt like the truth didn’t matter: “Somebody going down for that white man,” he said.

“It was more intense than any other time that I’d seen all those years I was out there in the streets. ... I felt like it was just because it was a white guy. Because black guys had gotten shot and murdered in them areas, and they didn’t act like that.”

The arrest 

Sharpe said that when officers came to arrest him, he stuck out his arms to be handcuffed and remained calm, thinking he had nothing to worry about.

“They said, ‘Man, we got a warrant for you,” Sharpe said. “I said, ‘A warrant for what, a drug charge?’ He said, ‘No man.’ I seen the bold word on that pink paper. It said ‘murder.’ I said, ‘Murder for what?’ They said, ‘That white man. Man, we just doing our job.’” 

He was booked under a $250,000 secured bond. Sharpe told his mother not to put up land or her possessions to post his bond since the truth eventually would come out. He recalls being shocked by some of the things said on the stand. He wanted to call people liars because of their testimony. 

Charlene Johnson, 15 at the time, said she saw Sharpe shoot Radcliffe and together with a co-defendant lift him into the truck. Johnson recanted her testimony two years later. 

Sharpe said he was calm as he awaited the verdict in July 1995, and he told his mom not to worry because he knew he was innocent. He’s spent much time reflecting on the case since the jury found him guilty.

He openly admits to being a drug dealer before he was jailed. He began selling drugs in sixth grade and dropped out of J.H. Rose High School in 10th grade. 

But Sharpe said his dealings did not connect him with Radcliffe because he did not sell to whites in the event they might be undercover officers. The only exception was if he went to school with them, he said.

Because of the lifestyle, Sharpe said he had guns. But he said he never shot anyone and being a dealer doesn’t make him a killer. He said law enforcement was intent on getting him off the streets any way they could.

“I know it was part of it: no matter what somebody is doing, bust them,” Sharpe said. “If you can catch them, lock them up. ... I used to think it was a mistake. It wasn’t a mistake. I was targeted. I was told they wanted me off the street for drugs.”

Regrets, then and now 

Prison has changed Sharpe. He went into the system weighing 174. Now, he’s 275 pounds.

He went into the system listening to hip hop artists like Wu Tang Clan, Tupac, Snoop Dogg and Tribe Called Quest. These days, Sharpe prefers listening to gospel, country and R&B.

Sharpe has obtained his GED and picked up trades in auto mechanics, carpentry, masonry and cooking. What he’s most proud of though, is the strides he has made in his spirituality, which includes graduating from Bible school.

The changes haven’t stopped the regrets though.

He thinks he should have waited for lawyers during his interviews with police. 

Sharpe also has flashbacks to the trial, when he said his attorney pointed out two federal agents that were wearing sunglasses and gray suits. Sharpe said his attorney told him the officials would ask him about drugs if he took the stand.

“I said, ‘I don’t care nothing about them asking me about those drugs,’” Sharpe said. ”I said, ‘I know I didn’t do this.’” 

He regrets not taking the stand. He wonders if things would have turned out differently.

Sharpe on some days equates having a life sentence to looking down a hole with no end. That hopelessness comes on days when he thinks about the strain on his relationships.

He has two daughters and grandchildren. His mother and aunt remained faithful supporters, missing five visits at most, but his aunt died. The potential for other family members dying while he is incarcerated is a reality, he said.

But Sharpe said he has to stick by his innocence, no matter what.

“I just hope when I get out, these people see the truth, accept the truth, turn me loose and that it gets uncovered in Pitt County,” Sharpe said. “I believe the system needs to be uncovered. It needs to be brought out like a lot of other states and counties we’ve seen, the wrong cop shootings. When a system is corrupt, how do you think the people are going to be?”

Sharpe said if he is freed, he first would thank God. Then he would kiss his grandkids, get to know all of his nieces and nephews that have grown up while he’s been away and try to focus on starting his life over.

But if freedom does not come from his appeals or from the work of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, Sharpe said he still will cling to his innocence, even if everyone and everything else is gone.

“That’s the choice I’ve made,” Sharpe said. “If I died knowing I was telling the truth, I’m good.”

 

Contact Sharieka Breeden at 252-329-9567 and sbreeden@reflector.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShariekaB.

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