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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...

Judge releases Dontae Sharpe after 24 years in prison

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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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Deborah Griffin
The Daily Reflector

Friday, August 23, 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 after the hearing 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.

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