Dontae Sharpe’s long road: The anatomy and aftermath of a Wrongful Convictions Clinic exoneration
Dontae Sharpe spent 25 years in prison for a 1994 murder he didn’t commit. Police had the evidence absolving him in hand long before he was ever charged.
Dontae Sharpe’s quest for freedom after being wrongfully convicted of a 1994 murder took a procedural path his lawyer calls “tortured.” But on Aug. 22, 2019, a judge in Greenville, N.C., found that newly discovered evidence presented on Sharpe’s behalf by the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic “destroys the State’s entire theory of the case” against him.
As Sharpe’s lead counsel, Charles S. Rhyne Clinical Professor of Law Theresa Newman ’88, explained to the court, the state’s expert witness at trial testified in a way that she wouldn’t have if she had known the state’s theory of the case. If medical examiner Mary Gilliland had known the prosecution based its case on an eyewitness statement that Sharpe shot the victim while they were standing face-to-face, she would told prosecutors that account was “medically and scientifically impossible.”
“It’s kind of a tiny pin to stand on, yet it truly unravels the entire case,” said Newman, who co-directs the Wrongful Convictions Clinic and has been working to free Sharpe since 2010. “At trial, Dr. Gilliland testified in a way that tacitly supported the state’s theory because she was testifying about medical evidence and did not know the state’s theory.”
Compounding the injustice of the wrongful conviction and long incarceration: the state had the medical and scientific evidence in hand within three days of the murder of George Radcliffe, Newman said. That was two months before an emotionally and psychologically troubled 14-year-old girl named Charlene Johnson made her inconsistent eyewitness statement implicating Sharpe. He was arrested the same day and spent the next 25 years locked up.
“Ms. Johnson provides a statement that is utterly inconsistent with the known facts that were collected over the three days following the murder, and nobody ever looked backward,” said Newman. “The prosecution of Mr. Sharpe should have stopped on April 7, 1994, the day Ms. Johnson gave the statement. He should never have been arrested that afternoon.”
Deconstructing a conviction
Radcliffe was found dead on Feb. 11, 1994, slumped sideways into the passenger well of his small Mazda pickup truck, which had apparently rolled into a chain-link fence in Greenville. The driver-side window was rolled partway down. While investigators initially surmised that Radcliffe, a white man, had innocently driven into “the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time,” they soon learned that he was a frequent drug user whose presence in North Carolina violated the terms of his parole for drug convictions in Florida.
The autopsy report indicated that Radcliffe was shot in his upper left arm, with the bullet traveling in a straight line through his upper torso and almost through his upper right arm. “It became our theory based on the physical evidence that George Radcliffe was shot while sitting in his truck,” Newman said. “His hands might have been on the steering wheel, but his upper arms would have been tight at his side. The autopsy confirmed the absolute natural suggestion issuing from these facts that the man was in his truck and he had rolled down his window in order to buy drugs without having to get out.”
But that isn’t what Johnson told police — without a parent, guardian, or attorney present — after they picked her up on an unrelated matter two months later. In a handwritten statement (using some language Newman doubts could have been her own), she wrote that she saw “Donta” [sic] and a man named Mark arguing with a “white male” who was $2 short on the cost of a “rock” of cocaine he was purchasing. Donta, whose last name was never used, pushed the white male and then pulled out a gun and shot him, she wrote. Four minutes after she signed the short statement, she added another, indicating that following the shooting, Donta drove the victim’s truck into the fence before he and his companion picked the white male up and carried him across the street to put him in the truck. Then “Donta throw the keys and the gun somewhere,” she wrote.
While for Newman it remains unclear as to how exactly Johnson emerged as a prosecution witness, she said it should have been clear to investigators from the start that the teen’s statement was unreliable; not only was it inconsistent with the medical evidence in the case, but she was emotionally unstable and had recently been admitted to a psychiatric facility. She ended up being a reluctant prosecution witness at trial; police brought her to court on a warrant, again with no parent or guardian present, after she refused to come voluntarily. And her trial testimony differed substantially from her statement, Newman pointed out: She said that after shooting Radcliffe and putting him in his truck, so that his feet were hanging out one door, one of the men got in on top of him and drove the truck into the fence before fleeing.
“Charlene uses the word ‘probably’ all through her testimony,” Newman added. “It was clear she was a child making it up.”
Johnson recanted her testimony weeks after trial. A hearing on her disavowal was held in 1997, when she was 17, but the presiding judge determined that it was her recantation, not her original testimony, that was false. Noting that the judge arguably had a conflict of interest regarding the recantation evidence due to his ruling in a different case that arose from Radcliffe’s murder, false and misleading evidence presented at that hearing “truly tainted all of Mr. Sharpe’s efforts the next 22 years, from 1997 to 2019,” Newman said. Johnson, she added, stayed resolute in her recantation and demands for Sharpe’s release.
A tortured procedural path
Following the 1997 recantation hearing, Sharpe filed a habeas claim in federal court that was remanded to state court, rejected there, and then rejected again upon return to federal court. But that disposition was successfully appealed by lawyers in private practice to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Sharpe’s case was then returned to the federal trial court, where Sharpe prevailed and the court ordered his release. He remained in custody, however, when prosecutors successfully appealed the district court’s favorable disposition of Sharpe’s habeas petition.
Since the clinic joined the case in 2010, Newman has supervised multiple student teams in a “ground-up” reinvestigation of the case that ultimately uncovered proof of the use of false and misleading evidence at trial and the various hearings afterward, and in their close contact with Sharpe and his family. Caitlin Swain-McSurely ’12, who “was all over Greenville investigating” with her clinic partner Nakita Cuttino ’12, has remained continuously involved with Sharpe’s case since, most recently helping it garner national attention as co-director of Forward Justice, a Durham law, policy, and strategy organization that focuses on matters of racial, social, and economic justice.
Swain-McSurely and other students joined Newman in 2013 in presenting their evidence concerning Sharpe’s innocence to the Pitt County district attorney, pointing out that their client’s sole connection to Radcliffe’s murder came through Johnson’s recanted testimony. But the district attorney declined to support the clinic’s effort, and in 2014, the clinic filed a Motion for Appropriate Relief (MAR) on Sharpe’s behalf setting out “serious constitutional violations” at his trial and subsequent evidentiary hearings that were supported by new material evidence uncovered by the clinic.
At that point, the district attorney ordered a limited reinvestigation of the case. Multiple people interviewed during that effort, Newman noted in a subsequent filing, unequivocally stated that “it wasn’t Dontae” who killed Radcliffe. One of them, whose coat was found in Radcliffe’s car, emerged as likely having been at the scene when the shooting took place, but told the detectives conducting the reinvestigation that he had no intention of “trading places” with Sharpe. (He has since died). And during the reinvestigation Johnson forcefully affirmed her recantation, telling officers that the only way to resolve the case would be to “let Dontae out,” Newman said.
Pitt County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Wilton Russell “Rusty” Duke, Jr., the same judge who had handled the 1997 recantation hearing, dismissed the clinic’s motion on Feb. 29, 2016, during his last hours on the bench, without holding an evidentiary hearing or even having responded to Newman’s three requests to meet.
But the clinic’s motto, said Newman, is “we never, never, never give up.” In fact, the clinic team found reason for optimism in an examination of Sharpe’s case by the Oxygen Network’s “Final Appeal” series that aired in early 2018 and featured Gilliland, the medical examiner who testified at Sharpe’s trial who had declined the clinic’s earlier interview request. The clinic asked to meet and this time she agreed. That meeting revealed the pivotal new evidence: that Gilliland had not known Johnson’s account of Radcliffe’s murder at the time she testified, and, if she had, she would have said then that it could not have happened that way.
In June of that year, Newman and her co-counsel — Clinical Professor Jamie Lau ’09, the clinic’s supervising attorney, and E. Spencer Parris, a Wrightsville Beach, N.C., lawyer acting pro bono — filed a new MAR on Sharpe’s behalf in Pitt County Superior Court. At 344 pages long with exhibits, it reflected every aspect of his long legal ordeal to that date, stating that he had “obtained new material evidence justifying relief.” In addition to Gilliland’s testimony, the MAR also presented evidence the clinic had collected of a confession to Radcliffe’s murder by an individual who had subsequently died. Finally, it succinctly addressed a seven-point legal test regarding the newly uncovered evidence that needed to be met in order for Sharpe’s request for a new trial to succeed.
The 2018 MAR ended up on the docket of a judge new to Sharpe’s case, Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins, sitting in Pitt County, and a new team from the district attorney’s office handled the state’s reply. The only point in serious dispute at the hearing on May 17 in which Gilliland testified was whether the evidence presented was new and therefore justified granting Sharpe’s request for a new trial. Said Newman: “When the State argued that the evidence was not ‘new,’ we amended our MAR with a claim that the prosecution used false evidence at trial, because if the court found Dr. Gilliland’s evidence wasn’t new, that it was plain from her testimony that Charlene’s testimony was impossible, then proceeding to verdict with it meant the state used false evidence at trial.”
After the May hearing, Judge Collins ruled that the evidence was “new” and ordered a second hearing to assess whether the new evidence warranted overturning Sharpe’s conviction and ordering a new trial.
At that second hearing, on Aug. 22, Joseph “Joe” Blount Cheshire V, a veteran Raleigh criminal defense attorney, testified to satisfy the court that Sharpe’s trial counsel had handled his case with due diligence in his initial cross-examination of Gilliland and hadn’t been, essentially, the source of the error that landed his client in prison for 25 years. “As Joe testified, he persuaded the court that Sharpe’s trial counsel did just about the best he could at the time,” Newman said. “Joe testified that the lawyer probably never imagined that the medical examiner didn’t know the state’s theory of the case.”
In her closing argument on Aug. 22, Newman noted the way a case with a complicated procedural history turned on one fact, “almost elegant in its simplicity,” that pointed to a clear resolution. Judge Collins agreed, stating that the newly discovered evidence destroyed the state’s entire case. He ordered Sharpe to be released on a $100,000 bond pending a new trial, but the assistant district attorney immediately announced the state was dismissing all charges against him due to a lack of evidence. “It happened so fast I almost missed it,” Newman said.
“No way to restore what was lost”
Sharpe and his many supporters in the courtroom, including his mother and stepfather, Sarah and Melvin Blakely, and Swain-McSurely, did not miss it. Speaking to Wrongful Convictions Clinic students in their class three weeks later, Sharpe, who had rejected multiple offers for a shorter sentence in return for an admission of guilt, recalled putting his head down on the counsel table and crying. “Every time I went before a judge, it felt like he’s got my life in his hands,” he said. It felt unreal to get his life back, he added.
During that meeting and on Oct. 2, when Sharpe and his mother addressed students in the clinic and Duke Law’s Innocence Project chapter as guests of honor for Wrongful Convictions Day, they were frank about the challenges of adjusting to family life and freedom after such a long period of incarceration. Sharpe is just getting to know and bond with his daughter — now a mother of two — who wasn’t yet born when he was arrested. “I still see her as a baby,” he said. “Seeing my little brothers grown makes me cry a bit.” He confessed to being “addicted” to his iPhone and obsessive about locking doors: “In prison, guards lock the doors. You’re safe in prison at night. Now I look out for my own security.” And he admitted to being challenged by the positive attention (including many requests for selfies and spontaneous hugs) he receives when out and about in his hometown of Greenville; he is considered a hero by many in the community for his refusal to take a plea deal to facilitate his freedom.
“I was just a boy who stood up for myself,” he said. “I stood up to a bully and took my life back.” Addressing the plea offers, he said, “It was too easy for them to convict me. I am not making it easy for them to get rid of me.”
Clinic faculty and students are currently working on Sharpe’s application for a pardon of innocence from Gov. Roy Cooper, a complex and cumbersome legal process that is a requisite first step to getting state compensation for his wrongful conviction, and one that frustrates him. “I don’t understand how you can know somebody’s innocent and still have all this red tape,” he told the class. “The system seems set up to try to discourage you. You need something when you get out because it’s a whole new world. Not everybody has money. It should be cut and dried.” The state has yet to give him the $45 given to all inmates on their release from prison, he said.
Asked what sustained him through his incarceration and what positive lessons he may have learned from his ordeal, Sharpe acknowledged his mother’s unwavering support and deep faith, as well as his own. “Don’t be a follower,” was a key lesson, he said. “Define who you are. You’ve got so much time to think in prison, look inside yourself and find out who you really are. I chose God, Jesus Christ.” He also stayed busy “to control the time so it goes faster” and read voraciously, thanks in part to a steady stream of books collected by clinic alumni who had worked on his case.
Both Sharpe and his mother praised the work their faculty and student attorneys had done on their behalf. Blakely called Newman, Swain-McSurely, and Lau members of their family. “I don’t look for miracles from them, I look for miracles from God,” she said. “He sent the people he wanted to work for Dontae’s case.”
Asked for advice on how to interact with clients and their families, both Sharpe and his mother were clear.
“Keep your word,” said Sharpe, who hopes to work with the renowned theologian and activist the Rev. William Barber II, one of the champions of his case, on advocacy relating to prison reform and wrongful convictions. “Be straight up and to the point. Don’t beat around the bush, don’t hide things. If you lie, the trust is gone. Be as genuine as you can with your client, and ‘be real’ with the D.A., too.”
“Find out what you can about the client from the family,” added Blakely, who said her passion for her work with children and families affected by substance abuse helped her get through the ordeal of fighting for her son’s innocence. “The students showed support. They visited, sent cards and books. I think that’s the thing that really made Dontae stay the person he stayed.
“You’ve got to be a protector for your client,” she said. “That’s what Theresa did. From the first day she said she believed in him. I felt it.”
Considering what was lost, Newman welcomed two other guests at Duke Law School on Wrongful Convictions Day: 81-year-old Charles Ray Finch, another clinic client, who was released on May 23 after serving 43 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, and his son, Calvin Jones, who was six when his father was sent to Death Row.
“These two men have spent almost 69 years, combined, in prison,” she said of Finch and Sharpe. “It is appropriate to celebrate them being here with us but there is no way to restore what was lost.”