By Al McSurely and Cash Michaels –
Greenville, NC – Wrongly tried and convicted at age 19 of a murder he did not commit, Dontae Sharpe was finally released from prison recently, thanks to the tireless efforts of his mother, the NCNAACP, and activists across North Carolina.
In a Pitt County courtroom filled with family and supporters, Sharpe smiled wide and raised both fists in the air when Pitt County prosecutors, during a second evidentiary hearing in the case, declined to retry him for the 1994 shooting death of George Radcliffe. Sharpe has proclaimed his innocence of the crime throughout his trial and incarceration.
A witness who was 14 years old at the time of the murder has now testified that she was forced by police to testify against Sharpe during his 1995 trial, and was recanting that testimony now, saying the she never saw Sharpe shoot anyone. No physical evidence ever linked Sharpe to the crime.
Calling that original murder trial “a nightmare,” veteran Raleigh criminal defense attorney Joe Cheshire reviewed the trial transcript and testified as an expert witness that Sharpe was essentially railroaded. He said in his 42 years of defending people charged with heinous crimes, the racism and corruption in eastern North Carolina courts—where the largest concentration of poor and black people live in NC—remains a major problem in the state’s criminal justice system.
Last May, defense attorneys presented scientific evidence from the State Medical Examiner at the time of the murder, evidence that proved Sharpe was not the man who shot Radcliffe. The Assistant District Attorney for Pitt County announced that the State did not believe, given the new evidence, that it could successfully prosecute Sharpe and therefore dismissed all charges against him. A split second later, an explosion of human emotion rippled through the courtroom. Dontae and his mother, Sarah Blakely, hugged and cried. Deputies took him to a holding room. A few minutes later, the bailiff handed a copy of the judge’s order to Sharpe. “Keep this with you,” he told Sharpe. “You are free to go.”
“What we saw was the court doing exactly what the law is supposed to do,” said defense attorney Catlin Swain after the judge decided to release Sharpe after prosecutors decided not to retry the case. Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the NC NAACP and staunch supporter of the “Free Dontae Sharpe” movement, led a public prayer of thanksgiving afterwards.
“The struggle for Dontae to re-enter the corrupt racist culture on the outside is the second stage of this struggle,” Rev. Spearman told supporters. “We who, by the grace of God, remained free while he was imprisoned for a quarter-century must immediately step-up our efforts to reform the corrupt racist NC criminal justice system, and give Dontae plenty of room to get his bearings before he decides how to contribute his insights to the struggle.”
Sharpe’s mother, Sarah Blakely, was just happy to have her son back home after 25 years.
“There’s plenty of time to plan the next part of the struggle. Today, let us give thanks. To God. To the Legal Team from the Duke Innocence Project. To Dontae, for providing a strong example in moral courage and faith. To our NAACP friends, Rev. Barber and Rev. Spearman, and all the Moral Monday people who came out. To the Coalition Against Racism. And, particularly to Attorney Caitlin Swain and Forward Justice. Today we say, Hallelujah! The next phase of the struggle can wait a few days.”