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Man pardoned after spending 24 years in prison for murder he didn't commit

By The Washington Post Time of article published Nov 14, 2021

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Dontae Sharpe had just finished discussing potential avenues with his legal team for getting pardoned for a murder he did not commit when he received a call from one of his attorneys.

Sharpe, who is Black, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a White man in Greenville, N.C., in 1994. Sharpe, who maintained his innocence, was wrongfully imprisoned for 24 years until he was exonerated in 2019 when a judge found that a key witness in the case had "entirely made up" her testimony.

Then, on Friday, Theresa A. Newman, one of Sharpe's attorneys, greeted her client with the news he'd been waiting to hear since his exoneration.

"Theresa called me and said, 'Hey, Mr. Pardon Man.' I was like, 'What do you mean, "Mr. Pardon Man?"'" Sharpe told The Washington Post. "She said, 'The governor just pardoned you.' That just left me smiling on my couch and kind of awestruck."

North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper announced Sharpe's pardon after he "carefully reviewed" a case that's been championed by criminal justice advocates for years.

"Mr. Sharpe and others who have been wrongly convicted deserve to have that injustice fully and publicly acknowledged," Cooper said in a news release.

The governor's pardon allows Sharpe, 46, of Charlotte to seek as much as $750,000 in compensation from the state for his wrongful conviction, Newman said.

"No one is saying, or can say, he was released on a technicality," Newman said. "The technicality is that he was innocent."

Sharpe's case is the latest instance in which people who've been wrongfully convicted have sought justice. Nearly 2,900 people have been exonerated since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Those wrongful convictions have amounted to more than 25,000 years in prison, according to the database.

This year alone has brought a series of high-profile exonerations of wrongfully convicted people to the national stage:

- In March, three men in New York convicted of murdering an off-duty police officer and a business owner nearly 25 years ago were released from prison after a judge declared that evidence that may have exonerated them was "deliberately withheld" from their lawyers.

- Curtis Closland, who spent more than 30 years for a Philadelphia murder, was freed from prison in July after evidence that had been on file for decades found he was wrongfully convicted.

- Kevin Strickland, a Kansas City man who has been in prison for more than 40 years for a triple murder, is awaiting word from a judge as to whether evidence exists to exonerate him from a crime that many believe he did not commit.

"This thing is commonplace now," Sharpe told The Post. "It can happen in so many places in so many ways, especially to people of color. People look at you like an animal or a monster, and you can't get that out of people's minds."

On Feb. 11, 1994, George Radcliffe was found fatally shot in his Mazda pickup truck in Greenville. When officers arrived at the predominantly Black neighborhood, they suspected the 33-year-old's death was related to a drug deal gone wrong.

During the course of the investigation, police interviewed Charlene Johnson, a teenager who had recently been discharged from a psychiatric ward, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Johnson told police in April 1994 that she saw Sharpe shoot Radcliffe in a face-to-face altercation over a $20 cocaine deal. She told investigators that Sharpe and another man put Radcliffe into his truck, crashed it into a vacant lot and tossed the key.

Sharpe was arrested hours later and charged with first-degree murder. Johnson, then 15, testified in court in July 1995.

Despite two alibi witnesses who testified to the court that Sharpe was with eating dinner and visiting with them at the time of Radcliffe's murder, he was convicted on July 17, 1995, and sentenced to life in prison. He was 19.

But weeks later, Johnson recanted her testimony, saying she was not present at the time of the fatal shooting. Johnson later said she made up the claims based on what investigators told her, and accused a detective of giving money and gifts to her and her family.

Even though Johnson acknowledged her testimony was completely fabricated, it took 24 years before Sharpe's case made it through the courts to a superior court judge in Pitt County, N.C., in 2019. At two evidentiary hearings in May and August of that year, the case against Sharpe unraveled.

The judge at the second hearing, G. Bryan Collins Jr., determined that if Johnson were to testify today, she would state that she did not witness the crime and that her testimony was "entirely made up based on what she saw on television and what investigators told her." The judge also found that Johnson's testimony of the face-to-face altercation did not match up with the trajectory of the bullet that killed Radcliffe. Collins also believed that the medical examiner who testified at the 1995 trial would now tell a court that Johnson's initial description of the shooting was "medically and scientifically impossible."

"This new evidence is of such a nature that a different result will probably be reached at a new trial and that the right will prevail," Collins wrote.

On Aug. 22, 2019, Collins vacated Sharpe's conviction and released him from prison. The Pitt County District Attorney's Office also dismissed his murder charge and vowed not to retry the case based on the lack of evidence.

When he was freed, Sharpe knew the next step was to get a pardon from the state - a process, he said, that's been an "emotional roller coaster."

"I have been kind of disappointed and angry at the system and how it works," he said. "I had no idea that I would have to fight all those years to get exonerated and then come out here and fight again to get my pardon."

Newman said she was at a restaurant Friday when she saw the governor's office was calling. She and Caitlin Swain, another one of Sharpe's attorneys, were not given advance notice of the pardon from Cooper, but were moved by what the significance of the act means for Sharpe.

"What's so important about this pardon is it is an acknowledgment of the truth, and that's a necessary step in reckoning with how broken the system is," Swain said.

As part of the pardon, Sharpe can now petition the state for compensation of $50,000 a year for his wrongful conviction, with $750,000 being the maximum total he can receive.

Sharpe, a fellow with Forward Justice, an organization advocating for criminal justice reform in North Carolina, reiterated how much of a relief it was to have his family's name be cleared all these years later. It was a burden, he admitted, that he wasn't sure would be lifted, even with the 2019 exoneration.

He said on Saturday morning that he had not gone to sleep since being pardoned. Instead, he's thinking of what he can do to help others like him who are wrongfully imprisoned.

"The only way forward for me is to bring about change in the criminal justice system," he said. "It's a slow process, but I'm 46, not 86. I got time to do things."

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