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Final appeal: Documentary looks at Dontae Sharpe case

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Sarah Blakely, Donatae Sharpe's mother, talks about his incarceration at her home Monday, Feb. 26, 2018. Dontae Sharpe has spent 24 years behind bars but is believed to be innocent by many.

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By Brian Wudkwych
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Family members and supporters hope that a new documentary will help win the freedom of a Greenville man who has served 23 years for a murder he insists he did not commit.

“Final Appeal,” a series on the Oxygen Network that examines potentially wrongful convictions, featured the case of Dontae Sharpe in an episode that first aired on Jan. 28.

During the episode, former football player and exonerated ex-convict Brian Banks and former prosecutor Loni Coombs travel between Greenville and Raleigh to reexamine Sharpe’s case and talk to key figures involved in the investigation of the 1994 murder of 33-year-old George Radcliffe.

Sharpe has maintained his innocence in the crime, and refuses to seek parole because he would have to admit guilt.

On Sunday, family, friends and supporters of Sharpe’s cause gathered at Phillipi Church to watch clips from the episode.

“It’s awesome,” Sharpe’s mother Sarah Blakely said of the documentary. “It really opens up the reality in this case that Dontae was charged in. I think it will open up other people's’ eyes also.”

Requests for Sharpe’s exoneration are in the hands of Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein. Blakely said not much feedback has been given to the family. The hope, however, is that the documentary reaches a broader audience and puts more pressure on officials to clear Sharpe’s name, she said. 

“It’s time to let him go,” she said. “We would really appreciate it if they would do what’s right and make this change and let Dontae out, turn this injustice into justice.”

In the documentary, Banks and Coombs interview Sharpe, former Detective Ricky Best, who helped run the investigation, former prosecutor Clark Everett, witness Charlene Johnson as well as others in their attempt to uncover what really happened in 1994.

When their own investigation into Sharpe’s conviction is complete, the duo relays a sense of doubt about the legitimacy of the decision, though the interview with Everett featured him saying, “I believe now he is guilty.” 

Johnson, who was a key witness and 15 years old at the time, originally said she saw Sharpe commit the murder but later recanted her statement. In her interview with Banks and Coombs, an emotional Johnson said she never saw Sharpe shoot Radcliffe and that she regrets her involvement in the case. She also said she believes he is innocent. 

Sharpe has been the beneficiary of support from the NAACP and other groups who have worked for years to help clear his name. In 2016, the NAACP launched the “Free Dontae Sharpe and Kalvin Michael Smith” campaign. Smith, who was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill in 1995 in Winston-Salem, was freed in November 2016. 

One of Sharpe’s attorneys, Daryl Atkinson with Forward Justice, joined the group screening and took questions from the crowd. He called Sharpe’s battle a “political fight” but said a new motion for appropriate relief that will appear in court for evidence that he said has recently turned up. 

Atkinson declined to elaborate on what new evidence existed, but also said that Cooper has the power to grant clemency at any time, which would be the simplest route. 

He also said the attorney general’s office is reviewing the case.

The question becomes whether or not it is a realistic expectation, as Sharpe is out of appeals. 

“I think if enough pressure and enough people advocate that this is something that they want to see, then yes,” Atkinson said.

Sharpe’s case also was screened to kick off a civil rights march called the “Moral March on Raleigh” on Feb. 11. Those interested in viewing the episode can watch it on Oxygen’s website at oxygen.com.

If enough noise is made for Sharpe, Blakely said, then perhaps his name will be cleared by the state’s highest powers. In the meantime, she plans to do as much as she can to advocate for her son. 

“We’re going to continue to do what we’re doing,” she said. “Keep marching, keep trudging, keep calling, keep petitioning until we get the result that we want.”

Contact Brian Wudkwych at bwudkwych@reflector.com or 252-329-9567 and follow @brianwudkwych on Twitter.

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