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I see the Mayor is getting out his signs again this year. This is a welcome sight because he deserves another term for...

Dontae Sharpe set free

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Dontae Sharpe enters a Pitt County courtroom after a judge released him from prison on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2019.

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The Daily Reflector

Thursday, August 22, 2019

A man convicted in a 1994 Greenville murder was freed after 24 years in prison Thursday when evidence that he did not commit the crime convinced a judge to order a new trial.

Because of the recanted testimony of a key witness, along with autopsy evidence showing her original testimony could not be true, Judge Bryan Collins of Wake County ruled Dontae Sharpe, 44, should have a new trial in the shooting death of George Radcliffe, a crime Sharpe never admitted to.

Pitt County Assistant District Attorney Valerie Pearce said she would not pursue a new trial because of the age of the case and credibility of testimony.

Pearce said she had anticipated the judge’s ruling.

“We are having to dismiss it because there is not sufficient evidence to prove the case at this point. We have a recanting witness and she was the main evidence,” Pearce said. “The other witnesses are either dead or have major credibility issues. We just don’t have the evidence to prosecute it at this point.”

Pearce said she could not conclusively prove Sharpe didn’t kill Radcliffe, “but I also can’t say conclusively that he did do it.”

As Judge Collins set a $100,000 unsecured bond for Sharpe, which allowed him to walk free a short time after the ruling, family, friends and supporters in the courtroom erupted in jubilation.

When asked in a phone interview how he maintained his determination to reject offers of a lighter sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, Sharpe told The Associated Press: “My faith, knowing I was innocent and the way I was raised. My momma always told me if you didn’t do something, don’t own up to it. Don’t say you did it.” He said his faith provided the “positivity to help me when I was around all that negativity.”

Sharpe was convicted of the murder in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison. He could have been released on parole but refused because it would have required him to admit guilt.

“It was a too-long journey for Dontae Sharpe,” said attorney Therese Newman, co-director of Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic. “We can lament that at some point, but right now, it’s a time of great joy to restore him to his family and his community.”

Sharpe’s mother, Sarah Blakely, kept his case in the spotlight with the help of the NAACP. Blakely said she was feeling joy and she was “relieved it’s all over. Justice was served.”

Sharpe’s family fought for his freedom over two decades.

Also attending the trial were representatives from the Pitt County Chapter of the NAACP and the North Carolina NAACP, including state President T. Anthony Spearman, in a show of solidarity for Sharpe’s release.

Charlene Johnson Frazier, the state’s only witness, was just 14 when she told police she saw Sharpe shoot Radcliffe, 33, in a vacant lot at the corner of Sheppard and West Sixth Street, an area in Greenville known for drug activity at the time.

Two years later, Frazier recanted her testimony. She testified again on Thursday that then-Greenville Police Department Detective Ricky Best pushed her into identifying Sharpe.

Frazier admitted she had been a troubled teen at the time the murder took place and realized later she was seeking attention.

She told the courtroom she repeatedly ran away from home, was twice hospitalized in the adolescent psychiatry unit at what was then Pitt County Hospital and was sent to Cherry Hospital, the state hospital for those with psychiatric illnesses.

“I was a kid out of control,” she said.

She said in the years since she testified against Sharpe, she has since been able to turn her life around.

She was there Thursday, because “the truth has to come out,” she said. “I refuse to go any further without telling the truth. Today I am doing what I should have done years ago — have a voice and stand up for myself.”

Previous attempts to free Sharpe based on Frazier’s recanted testimony have failed, including a motion for appropriate relief that Judge W. Russell “Rusty” Duke rejected in 2016, Newman said.

In May however, former state medical examiner M.G.F. Gilliland offered testimony that raised more questions about the state’s case against Sharpe.

Based on the original testimony of Frazier, prosecutors at the time argued that Radcliffe was facing Sharpe when a shot was fired.

Gilliland’s autopsy determined Radcliffe was shot in the side.

Gilliland said she was not aware during Sharpe’s 1995 trial that the state was arguing he and Radcliffe were facing each other. Given the side-to-side path of the bullet in Radcliffe’s body, a face-to-face shooting could not have happened.

The testimony in May helped convince Collins to set Thursday's hearing for a new trial.

Also testifying at Sharpe’s hearing Thursday was a nationally known criminal defense lawyer, Joe Cheshire. He said as he read the transcripts from the case, after the family asked him to, it was like reliving a nightmare.

“It [1994] was a time before open file discovery. It was a time before police officers kept notes. It was a time before police officers were held accountable for any of their actions. It was a time of trial by ambush,” he said.

Cheshire believes that had the jury heard Gilliland give her opinion that Frazier’s testimony was medically and scientifically impossible, there would have likely been a different outcome.

Later, Cheshire said he came to he came to the trial because he has trouble with innocent people being in prison.

Spencer Parris, a lawyer from Wrightsville Beach was representing Sharpe, along with lawyer Theresa Newman.

Parris said he was representing Sharpe “pro-bono” because, “I believe it is our duty to give our time to correct the failures of our justice system.”

Both lawyers were elated at the final outcome.

According to a press release from Forward Justice, a center on law, policy and strategy, Dontae’s case has been featured in the national media, including Final Appeal, an in-depth documentary series produced by Oxygen Network.

According to the release, 70,000 people across the nation have signed a petition to the District Attorney’s office, the Attorney General and N.C. Governor Roy Cooper in support of Sharpe.

Friends, family and supporters will gather to celebrate from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. today at Philippi Church of Christ, 3760 Philippi Circle in Greenville.

Previous story

A man convicted in a 1994 Greenville murder was freed after 24 years in prison Thursday after a judge ruled new evidence justified a new trial. 

Dontae Sharpe, 44, hugged family and friends in Pitt County Superior Court after Judge Bryan Collins of Wake County ruled Sharpe should have a new trial in the shooting death of George Radcliffe. 

Pitt County Assistant District Attorney Valerie Pearce said she would not pursue a new trial because of the age of the case and credibility of testimony.

Collins set a $100,000 unsecured bond for Sharpe and allowed him to go free a short time after his ruling. Sharpe exited the courthouse with his family Thursday afternoon.

Charlene Johnson, 15 at the time, told police she saw Sharpe shoot Radcliffe in a vacant lot at the corner of Sheppard and West Sixth Street, an area in Greenville known for drug activity at the time. Johnson recanted her testimony two years later.

She testified again on Thursday that former Greenville Police Department Detective Ricky Best pushed her into identifying Sharpe. Previous attempts to free Sharpe based on Johnson’s turnabout failed.

In May however, former state medical examiner M.G.F. Gilliland offered testimony that raised more questions about the state’s case against Sharpe. 

Based on the original testimony of Johnson, prosecutors at the time argued that Radcliffe was facing Sharpe when a shot was fired.

Gilliland testified that her autopsy showed Radcliffe was shot in the side. 

Gilliland said she was not aware during Sharpe’s 1995 trial that the state was arguing he and Radcliffe were facing each other.

Previous story

A Wake County judge has ruled that new evidence can be considered in a 1994 murder that sent a man to prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit.

Wake County judge Bryan Collins ordered a hearing to be held in August for Dontae Sharpe, Pitt County Assistant District Attorney Valerie Pearce said Tuesday when asked for an update on the case. Collins has been appointed to hear the case because of conflicts with local judges.

Sharpe, 44, was convicted in 1995 in the shooting death of George Radcliffe, 33. Radcliffe was found dead in a small Mazda pickup truck about 9:15 p.m. on Feb. 11, 1994.

Sharpe’s attorney, Theresa Newman, said in a May 17 hearing that the truck crashed in a vacant lot at the corner of Sheppard and West Sixth Street, an area in Greenville known for drug activity at the time.

Medical examiner Dr. Mary Gilliland testified at trial about the side-to-side path of the bullet that killed Radcliffe. At the time she was unaware that the state’s principal witness had testified that Radcliffe was facing his killer, Gilliland testified on May 17.

“The new evidence is, now that she knows this, her opinion is that the state’s theory is medically and scientifically impossible,” Newman said.

Newman requested during the May hearing that the court grant a motion for relief to give Sharpe a new trial or overturn his conviction. Both Newman and Pearce presented briefs for Collins to consider.

Collins’ ruling, which has not yet been made public, says Gilliland’s testimony is indeed newly discovered evidence. Sharpe’s lawyers must prove six more factors before a motion for appropriate relief is granted, Pearce said. Those factors are:

The newly discovered evidence is probably true.

The evidence is material, competent and relevant.

Due diligence was used and proper means were employed to procure the testimony at trial.

The evidence is not merely cumulative or corroborative

The evidence does not merely tend to contradict, impeach or discredit the testimony of a former witness.

The evidence is of such a nature that a different result will probably be reached at a new trial.

“The law requires a seven-part test to determine whether there’s new evidence and whether that new evidence requires relief for the defendant,” Pearce said.

“The judge is ordering we hold a full evidentiary hearing to look at those other factors, in August,” she said. “If the judge finds these factors, he can set aside the defendant’s conviction and award him a new trial.”

Pearce said the state would have reassess all evidence and testimony to determine whether to proceed.

“That would be very difficult,” Pearce said.

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