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Hearing is man's fourth try at freedom

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Dontae Sharpe

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By Tyler Stocks
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A hearing set for Friday will consider new evidence that could free a Greenville man convicted of murder in 1994.

A Superior Court judge from Wake County will hear the motion of appropriate relief filed on behalf of Montoyae Dontae Sharpe, 44, who was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder in the 1994 shooting death of George Radcliffe. Radcliffe was shot in west Greenville possibly while seeking to buy drugs, authorities said at the time.

Sharpe has maintained his innocence since his arrest and conviction in 1995. He declined offers for lighter sentencing in exchange for a guilty plead and has declined release from prison that would require him to admit guilt, according to previous statements from him and supporters.

This is the fourth motion for relief filed on his behalf. Sharpe and his attorney, Theresa Newman, a Duke University law professor who specializes in wrongful convictions, plan to introduce new evidence in the case, according to Pitt County Assistant District Attorney Valerie Pearce.

“The defendant filed his fourth motion for appropriate relief last year,” Pearce said. “And they make allegations in the MAR that is the defense’s burden to prove at the hearing. They’re going to present one witness on Friday to try and support their allegations.”

Sharpe’s case has garnered national attention through the sustained advocacy of his mother, Sarah Blakeley of Greenville, state and local NAACP chapters and the student-led innocence project at Duke. It also was the focus of the televised documentary series, Final Appeal.

His lawyer, Newman, serves as co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, is associate director of the Duke Law School Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility and a faculty adviser to the Innocence Project.

The hearing is set to begin at 10 a.m. at the Pitt County Courthouse. Friends and family have been rallying community members to show up at the courthouse en masse.

“After a quarter of a century fighting for justice, an innocent man will finally have his case heard in a court of law,” Pitt County NAACP President Calvin Henderson said.  “What we are doing in Pitt County is asking the Greenville community and the people of good will from across the state to join us ... to stand in solidarity with Dontae Sharpe and his family, friends and supporters for what we’re praying will surely be an historic moment for the Sharpe family.”  

Henderson said the day is long overdue.  

“It’s time for Dontae to come home to his mother, to his family and to the community,” he said. “We are fighting not only for Dontae but we believe we can prevent wrongful conviction in Pitt County.”

Pearce said people convicted of crimes may file motions for appropriate relief that cite new evidence or claim that a mistake was made in court.

She said there are three possible outcomes from Friday’s hearing: the judge could order a new trial; the case could be dismissed and Sharpe’s conviction overturned; or the judge could dismiss Sharpe’s motion, as has happened previously.

The case has been assigned to Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins of Wake County.

If a new trial is ordered, Pearce said the state would first have to determine if enough evidence remains after 25 years to retry Sharpe. 

She said a new trial would undo the work of jurors, witnesses and create complexities for both the prosecution and defense.  

“It’s a pretty tall order to go back and undo that,” Pearce said. “It has to be pretty strong evidence to go back and undo the evidence that was heard at the original trial.”

Radcliffe was shot and killed about 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 11, 1994, in the area of Sheppard and Sixth streets. Sharpe, a known drug dealer in the area, was arrested and jailed a short time later and convicted on July 27, 1995, when he was 20.

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

On the day of Radcliffe’s murder, Sharpe said he and a friend went to a home in Grimesland and visited with some other friends. Later he returned to his aunt’s house in Greenville. It was there he learned someone had been killed, he said.

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