The Duke University Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which led the legal effort to overturn a 24-year-old murder conviction against Dontae Sharpe of Greenville on Aug. 22, is criticizing a statement released by the Pitt County District Attorney’s office shortly after the decision.
The clinic represented Sharpe from 2010 until his exoneration, when Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins overturned his 1995 murder conviction and the Pitt County District Attorney’s Office immediately dismissed the charge.
Judge Collins’ ruling followed two evidentiary hearings this year that focused on medical examiner Dr. M.G.F. Gilliland’s expert opinion that George Radcliffe, the victim in Sharpe’s case, could not have been killed in the manner the state claimed at Sharpe’s trial.
Gilliland told the court that the state’s case was “medically and scientifically impossible.” Collins found that Gilliland’s opinion was new evidence that “destroys the state’s entire theory of the case.” The state did not challenge Gilliland’s opinion and dismissed the charge.
A news release from the District Attorney’s office, published in The Daily Reflector on Aug. 26, described the evidence in the case as inconclusive. A news release issued by the Duke clinic on Aug. 29 said “that characterization is disingenuous, at best.” Following is the text of the release the center issued “to set record straight.”
At trial in 1995, the state’s case against Sharpe rested entirely upon the testimony of Charlene Johnson, a seriously emotionally and psychologically troubled 15-year-old child at the time. The state has never explained how Ms. Johnson became its star witness. Nothing in the investigative file of the Greenville Police Department (GPD) explains it, and Ms. Johnson, herself, is unclear about it, likely because of her emotional health at the time.
What is known is that, on April 7, 1994, about two months after Mr. Radcliffe’s murder, Ms. Johnson wrote a brief two-part statement for the police, naming “Donta” (first name only) and another man as Mr. Radcliffe’s assailants. The statement is materially inconsistent with the injury Mr. Radcliffe sustained and the other known facts of the case, which the police must have recognized immediately.
Yet the state still built its entire case on Ms. Johnson’s statement.
The basic facts are not disputed. George Radcliffe, a white man, was found dead in his Mazda B2200 pickup truck about 9:15 p.m. on Feb. 11, 1994. His truck had crashed into a vacant lot at the corner of West Sixth and Sheppard Streets, a predominantly African-American community in Greenville known for drug activity at the time.
Mr. Radcliffe’s feet were under the steering column, and his head and shoulders were slumped over onto the floor on the passenger side. The truck lights were on, the key was in the ignition, and the driver’s side window was rolled half to three quarters of the way down. The autopsy revealed that Mr. Radcliffe died from a single gunshot wound that traveled in a nearly perfect straight line through the top of his left arm, across his chest, and into his right arm, lodging directly under the skin on the outer arm. The police determined that Mr. Radcliffe was a known drug user and believed he had been trying to purchase drugs on the night he died.
These facts strongly indicate that Mr. Radcliffe was shot while trying to buy drugs, that he was sitting in his truck, that the killer was standing outside the truck, and that the killer shot Mr. Radcliffe through the open driver’s side window. Ms. Johnson’s statement was inconsistent with all of those basic conclusions.
In the first part of her April 7, 1994, statement, Ms. Johnson claimed that Mr. Radcliffe was standing outside his truck arguing with a man named “Donta” over the price of crack cocaine. Donta pushed Mr. Radcliffe and then shot him. Ms. Johnson then signed and dated the statement. She almost immediately added a second paragraph to explain how Mr. Radcliffe got into his truck and how it ended up where police found it.
In the second paragraph, signed four minutes after the first, Ms. Johnson wrote that, after shooting Mr. Radcliffe, Donta and another man drove the truck and crashed it. She said the two men returned to where Mr. Radcliffe fell on the street, picked him up, carried him to the truck, and put him in it.
The police arrested Mr. Sharpe the same afternoon, based solely on Ms. Johnson’s two-part statement, and charged him with Mr. Radcliffe’s murder.
The state must have known from the beginning that Ms. Johnson’s statement was likely fabricated. On the first day of Mr. Sharpe’s trial, Ms. Johnson told the DA’s Office she was not going to testify because she did not want to continue to lie. The judge ordered the police to arrest her. The police brought her to court and she testified against Mr. Sharpe.
On the stand
On the stand, Ms. Johnson repeated the story about the argument between the two men and said the shooting occurred while Donta and Mr. Radcliffe were standing face to face. She changed the second part of her statement, testifying that Mr. Sharpe and the other man lifted Mr. Radcliffe off the street, stuffed him into the truck, with his feet hanging out one side and his head the other, and then one of the men climbed in on top of his body, drove, and crashed the truck. That was the state’s only explanation for Mr. Radcliffe’s death. The jury convicted Mr. Sharpe and sentenced him to life in prison.
Shortly after trial, Ms. Johnson admitted she had lied and the court held a hearing in 1997 to consider her recantation. At that hearing, the state relied on false evidence to discredit Ms. Johnson, leading the judge to conclude it was not clear that her testimony at trial was false. That decision effectively defeated all subsequent efforts by Mr. Sharpe to prove his innocence.
In 2014, the Duke Law Clinic filed a comprehensive Motion for Appropriate Relief that set out significant legal claims demonstrating Mr. Sharpe’s factual and legal innocence and detailed his previous frustrated efforts to prove it. On Feb. 29, 2016, his last day as a judge, Superior Court Judge W. Russell Duke Jr., summarily denied those claims, without a hearing.
In 2017, the Clinic learned that Dr. Gilliland did not know the prosecution’s theory of the murder when she testified at trial and, when the Clinic informed her of the theory, she said it was “medically and scientifically impossible.” Based on that new evidence, the Clinic filed a new MAR that focused solely on the reliability of the core evidence presented against Mr. Sharpe at trial. Dr. Gilliland testified at a May 17, 2019 hearing, after which Judge Collins ruled that her opinion was “new evidence” under the law and ordered a second evidentiary hearing to determine if Mr. Sharpe was entitled to a new trial.
The second hearing occurred on Thursday August 22, 2019, at which both Ms. Johnson and Attorney Joseph B. Cheshire, an expert in state criminal law, testified for Mr. Sharpe. Based on that evidence, Judge Collins ordered a new trial for Mr. Sharpe. The DA’s Office did not present evidence at either hearing.
As the DA’s press release reports, no physical or testimonial evidence links Mr. Sharpe to Mr. Radcliffe’s death and the “only remaining evidence” is Dr. Gilliland’s testimony that Ms. Johnson’s recanted account of the crime at Mr. Sharpe’s trial was medically and scientifically impossible. Despite that, however, the press release also appear to be a thinly veiled attempt to discredit Ms. Johnson and Mr. Sharpe’s claim of innocence. It also introduces a second alleged eyewitness whom the DA never mentioned in either of the evidentiary hearings and whose credibility had been utterly discredited years ago by an SBI investigation.
In its press release, the DA’s Office said its “mission is to seek fairness, truth, and justice for all people and work towards a better system.” If that is true, the press release should have said only that there is no evidence that Mr. Sharpe was involved in Mr. Radcliffe’s murder and therefore he is innocent. That would have been the simple truth and a meaningful step toward justice for Mr. Sharpe and a better system.