A North Carolina man who maintained his innocence even as he served a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit was freed Thursday and said he got his strength in prison from God and his mother.
Dontae Sharpe went free after an evidentiary hearing in Pitt County court in Greenville, where a judge ordered a new trial. Prosecutors then said they wouldn’t seek a retrial, and the 44-year-old Sharpe was released within about an hour, said his attorney, Theresa Newman.
When asked in a phone interview how he maintained his determination to reject offers of a lighter sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, Sharpe said: “My faith, knowing I was innocent and the way I was raised. My momma always told me if you didn’t do something, don’t own up to it. Don’t say you did it.” He said his faith provided the “positivity to help me when I was around all that negativity.”
Sharpe was convicted of murder in 1995 in the death of 33-year-old George Radcliffe in a drug deal a year earlier. His repeated attempts to get a new trial failed, including a motion for appropriate relief that a judge rejected in 2016, Newman said.
The difference this time around was the testimony of former state medical examiner M.G.F. Gilliland, the attorney said. Gilliland testified at an evidentiary hearing in May that the state’s theory of the shooting was not medically or scientifically possible. After that testimony, the judge ordered Thursday’s hearing to hear more evidence.
“It was a too-long journey for Dontae Sharpe,” said Newman, co-director of Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic. “We can lament that at some point, but right now, it’s a time of great joy to restore him to his family and his community.”
Sharpe’s mother, Sarah Blakely, kept his case in the spotlight with the help of the NAACP. Blakely said she was feeling joy and she was “relieved it’s all over. Justice was served.”
The Rev. William Barber, who was president of the state chapter of the NAACP when the organization took up Sharpe’s case, said racism and poverty contributed to Sharpe’s conviction despite the lack of physical evidence.
“It was the racism within the system that said basically, any black man will do,” said Barber, who’s now co-director of the president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. And Sharpe’s family couldn’t afford the “powerhouse attorney” needed to fight the charge, he said.
Sharpe’s conviction relied partially on the testimony of a woman who said she saw Sharpe kill Radcliffe. Charlene Johnson Frazier, who was 15 when she testified, later recanted. She testified again Thursday.
Gilliland also testified again Thursday, saying Radcliffe was shot in the side. His killer could not have been standing in front of him, as Frazier testified at Sharpe’s trial, she said.
Sharpe said he plans to spend time with his family, including his daughter, two grandchildren and nieces and nephews. “I’m going to take a breath right now and gather myself,” he said. “I’m feeling shocked a little bit.”