New day in court: Evidence hearing held in Dontae Sharpe case
By Sharieka Botex
The Daily Reflector
Saturday, May 18, 2019
Attorneys defending a man who has maintained his innocence since his imprisonment for a 1994 homicide said that a medical examiner — now a key witness for the defense — deemed the state's theory in the original case as medically and scientifically impossible.
A hearing for Dontae Sharpe took place on Friday at the Pitt County County Courthouse in hopes of either overturning the original verdict or forcing a new trial.
Sharpe's mother, Sarah Blakely, family members, advocates and other supporters packed the courtroom, where Sharpe was present.
Judge Bryan Collins of Wake County presided and told those present on Friday that there would not be any ruling on the case during the hearing. Collins said the hearing was held to receive and evaluate the testimony of one witness.
Sharpe, 44, was convicted of the murder of George Radcliffe, which Sharpe's attorney Theresa Newman provided details about during Friday's hearing.
“On Feb. 11, 1994, shortly after 9:15 p.m., George Radcliffe, a 33-year-old white man, was found dead in a small Mazda pickup truck,” Newman said. “The truck had crashed in a vacant lot at the corner of Sheppard and West Sixth Street, here in Greenville, in a largely African-American neighborhood, known for its drug activity. When the emergency responders arrived at the scene, both doors of the truck were closed, but the driver's side window was rolled down, one half and three quarters of the way.”
Newman on Friday presented several elements of what she argues was a newly discovered evidence claim that she said warranted a new trial for Sharpe.
Referring to Dr. Mary Gilliland's testimony, Newman said, “The new evidence is that when she testified at trial, she did not know the state's theory of the murder had advanced through the state's principal witness Charlene Johnson's testimony. The new evidence is, now that she knows this, her opinion is that the state's theory is medically and scientifically impossible.”
Newman requested that the court grant Sharpe’s motion for relief and asked to present a brief to support the request. Collins on Friday said he would review the brief and denied a request by Pitt County Assistant District Attorney Valerie Pearce to dismiss the motion.
“We would dispute that this is newly discovered evidence,” Pearce said. “Her testimony is exactly the same today as it was back in July of 1995 when she testified originally.”
Gilliland’s autopsy determined that a bullet traveled through Radcliff’s body from left to right, which is what she testified at the in 1995. The state, through Johnson’s testimony, suggested Radcliff was turned to face his assailant.
After the case, civil rights activist the Rev. William Barber stood alongside Blakely, who was also joined by Pitt County NAACP President Calvin Henderson, T. Anthony Spearman, North Carolina NAACP president and supporters.
Barber referred to the day as a powerful one and thanked those involved for their work on the case. The family and Sharpe were credited by Barber as the real heroes.
“To see your son come in a courtroom, to know he's innocent, and then to have to take some more time, and that the state here would not agree to a release, as the judge considers this new evidence,” Barber said. “There's been a grave miscarriage of justice, and this is not about statistics. This is about life ... Dontae has been a courageous man ... a strong man, a man that even inside of the prison walls is respected. It's time for this system to let this young man go now.”
While Blakely appeared emotional at times, she remained optimistic, motivated and determined following the hearing. Blakely, like Barber referred to her son's strength and courage.
“I'm gonna stand behind him until it's over. I'm not giving up. I know he's innocent. I don't care what they say, how they say it, or whatever, but I'm not giving up. This is just another step to victory, and it's coming. I know it's coming.”
Newman's overview of the case included background information about the account of two witnesses and a point she shared about police being told about Radcliffe's drug's use. “The police were also told that Mr. Radcliffe was a known drug user and was looking for drugs that night,” Newman said.
Newman also provided an overview of Charlene Johnson's testimony and details about her account of the case.
“Shortly after trial, on her initiative, Ms. Johnson had admitted that she had lied,” Newman said. “She wasn't present when Mr. Radcliffe was shot. She does not know who shot him or how. She simply made up what she told the police and what she said in the court. Yes, in spite her persistent recantation and all of the efforts that have been made in court and otherwise, in negotiation with the District Attorney's office, in candid ... meetings, in presentations to those offices, three district attorney's at this point, that testimony remains standing today. Every effort we have made ... we have been pointed to Ms. Johnson's testimony.”
In court on Friday, Newman apologized for the absence of a second witness she said she was anticipating, and informed the court that, Gilliland was the only witness they would hear from during the hearing.
“When Dr. Gilliland, in 2017, was informed of the evidence advanced by the state at trial, and after her very careful review of the relevant materials, she deemed Ms. Johnson's testimony medically and scientifically impossible,” Newman said.
Newman said that Gilliland was not told the theory of the case that was advancing.
“At no time between trial and today has Dr. Gilliland returned to the stand to tell us what she did not know then, that at the time of the trial, that the state had not told her what Ms. Johnson would testify to, and the significance of that,” Newman said.
Newman discussed Radcliffe's autopsy report, which she said confirmed that he died from a single gunshot wound. Along with other details that Newman provided to summarize the autopsy report, she said, “The bullet traveled in a nearly straight line through his body, almost parallel to the ground, off by one inch,” Newman said. “That's what's indisputable.”
Gilliland was questioned by Sharpe's lawyer, Spencer Parris, also representing Sharpe, and Raye Cameron, an assistant district attorney.
“What did the autopsy show,” Parris asked Gilliland.
“The autopsy showed that Mr. Radcliffe was shot in the arm, through and through the arm ... and then it went into his chest, through the heart, came out of the chest in the armpit ... and then into the right arm and stopped inside the right arm, without breaking any bones,” she said.
Gilliand at times referred to herself as an example while talking about the pathway, which she said was consistent with how she was sitting. “The pathway is consistent with, like I am sitting here now ... if I raise my left arm up, it's not going to go through the arm and into the chest, it's going to go some place else ... It certainly was not through the mid-chest,” Gilliland said.
She continued on to say, “That's just not true.” To which, Parris responded, “Medically and scientifically impossible?” She replied, “That's correct.”
“It was clear to me that George Radcliffe was not shot face to face,” Gilliland said.