Dontae Sharpe set free 4

Surrounded by family friends and supporters, Dante Sharpe takes a deep breath after leaving the Pitt County courtroom a free man in August 2019.

Dontae Sharpe, a man jailed and in prison for 25 years for murder before his exoneration in 2019, received a pardon of innocence on Friday from Gov. Roy Cooper.

Cooper’s office said Sharpe’s application was thoroughly reviewed by the Office of Executive Clemency, the Office of the General Counsel and the governor himself.

“I have carefully reviewed Montoyae Dontae Sharpe’s case and am granting him a pardon of innocence,” said Cooper. “Mr. Sharpe and others who have been wrongly convicted deserve to have that injustice fully and publicly acknowledged.”

Sharpe was joined after the announcement by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber III, former N.C. NAACP president, Rev. Dr. Anthony Spearman, current president of the N.C. NAACP, and Caitlin Swain of Forward Justice. Sharpe thanked his family and advocates for the support he has received throughout his long ordeal.

“I am just thankful to God,” Sharpe said. “For my mom that raised me like she did, putting those morals in me and those principles.”

“If it was not for her and my aunt I probably would not have made it. All the support, I am big on the support. The most important people in this fight, I am going to give honor where honor is due, and that is the people out there with Rev. Spearman and Rev. Barber, with Caitlin and them at Forward Justice, the NAACP, Black Voters Matter and all the organizations. All those mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers I saw out there in those wheelchairs for me and all the marches, the vigils.”

Sharpe was convicted in 1994 for the murder of George Radcliffe, 33, in a Greenville neighborhood. He was 19 years old. The state chapter of the NAACP for years called for Sharpe’s release. In his entire time behind bars, Sharpe maintained his innocence.

On Aug. 23, 2019, a years-long legal effort that included new forensic evidence and witness testimony convinced a judge he deserved a new trial. The Pitt County District Attorney’s office then announced it would not pursue the matter further, in part because of difficulties involved with resurrecting a case more than two decades after the crime, leading to Sharpe’s exoneration.

While seeking a pardon, Sharpe became an advocate for legal reform, leading the Journey for Justice Campaign to help people who share his plight. As part of the effort, he has spoken to audiences across the country about his experiences, the need for advocacy and the importance of organizing to bring change to the legal justice system. He said that work continues.

“I believe that it has all been preparation for the work I have to do,” Sharpe said of his fight for freedom. “My freedom still is not complete as long as there are still people going to prison wrongfully, still people in prison wrongfully and still people waiting on pardons.”

“My freedom still is not 100 percent and I do not believe it ever will be 100 percent, because I have been in there and been through the fire in there. I have seen guys and met guys who are innocent. I know that our system is corrupt and it needs to be changed.”

Organizations like Forward Justice and the North Carolina NAACP held multiple rallies in Raleigh advocating for the Sharpe after his exoneration. With the pardon, he is eligible for $750,000 from the state for wrongful imprisonment.

Cooper has recently granted a number of pardons to men who the courts determined were wrongly incarcerated. In June, Cooper granted one to Charles Ray Finch, 83, of Wilson, a former death row inmate who spent 43 years in prison for the killing of a shopkeeper. Like Sharpe, Finch was freed in 2019 after a wrongful murder conviction.

In April, Cooper granted a pardon to Darryl Howard of Durham, who was wrongly convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree arson in 1995. Howard served 22 years in prison. A judge vacated his conviction in 2016.

In December, Cooper pardoned Ronnie Long of Concord, who spent 44 years in prison for a rape he says he did not commit. Long was in attendance at Friday’s event but did not speak.

Buncombe County residents Teddy Isbell, Kenneth Kagonyera, Damian Mills and Larry Williams Jr. were pardoned following what was determined a wrongful conviction for the 2000 murder of Walter Bowman during a home invasion in Fairview.

Sharpe thanked Cooper for the pardon.

“I do want to thank Mr. Cooper for doing what was right,” Sharpe said. “It might have not come when I wanted, but we all know God was really in charge anyway. At the end of the day, he gave his word he would make a decision. We did not know what that decision would be but, by faith we believed it was going to be to pardon me and he did. We still believe for the other guys to get their pardon. We cannot forget them and I will not forget them.”

Barber said he hopes Cooper takes the time to invite Sharpe into his office, listen to and work with him.

“Look eye to eye and talk man to man,” Barber said. “Perhaps, in the midst of all of this, you all can join forces and get the rest of those men out and change the system that is broken. I think, governor, as Donte thanked you for what you did, you ought to call him and thank him for how he stood and talked, and look at how this system can change.

“I want to thank you for teaching us. Sometimes we want to be angry when things do not come when we want, but thank you … If you can be magnanimous, the rest of us have got to follow.”

Contact Pat Gruner at and 252-329-9566.