Dontae Sharpe was exonerated after 24 years in prison. That was not the end of his ordeal

Every year Dontae Sharpe braces himself for the pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey.

It’s not that he objects to turkeys being spared the butcher’s knife. It’s that, from where he’s sitting, there are far more urgent candidates for a reprieve from the governor of North Carolina than a bird.

For a quarter of a century Sharpe watched the pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey on a prison TV, having been sentenced in 1995 to life imprisonment for a murder that he did not commit. Even after he was exonerated and released in August 2019, he was unable to clear his name or claim compensation because the same governor who spared the turkeys had yet to pardon him.

“Every time the governor pardoned the turkey I’d think, there we go again,” Sharpe told the Guardian at his home in the suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina. “I’d laugh. There are humans who need pardoning, not turkeys.”

This Thanksgiving, Sharpe has at last managed to avoid the annual turkey humiliation. On 12 November the incumbent Democratic governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper, granted him a pardon of innocence – rendering Sharpe fully free and clear of any lingering judicial cloud for the first time in almost 28 years.

Sharpe was 19 on 7 April 1994 when he was arrested for the murder of a 33-year-old white man, George Radcliffe, who had come to the teenager’s overwhelmingly black neighborhood in Greenville, North Carolina, in search of drugs. The shooting of a white man in a black area was a perfect storm, given the toxic state of race relations in the 1990s US south.

“A white man gets killed in a black neighborhood – that was a no-no in North Carolina when I was growing up,” Sharpe said. “Whites run the city, they are the ones in power. So when that white man got shot everybody said it, even I said it: ‘Whoever killed that white guy is through.’”

Two months after Radcliffe’s murder the police arrested Sharpe. There was no forensic evidence linking him to the shooting. The prosecution’s case depended almost entirely on the testimony of a single witness, Charlene Johnson, who was 13 at the time of the killing and had recently been discharged from a three-week stay at a psychiatric hospital.

That fact was not disclosed to Sharpe’s defense lawyers at trial. Nor were forensic details about the position of Radcliffe’s body, which prosecutors knew conflicted with Johnson’s eyewitness account.

Years later a medical examiner testified that had she been aware of those forensic details she would have told the jury that Johnson’s testimony was medically and factually impossible. Johnson herself recanted her statement, saying she had not been present at the crime scene and had made up the story under pressure from detectives and with the inducement of a $500 reward.

At several points over the course of his 25-year incarceration Sharpe was offered plea deals that would have set him free on the spot. He turned down every one.

“I didn’t do the murder, so I’m not going to say I did it just to get out of prison. I told my lawyer, ‘Don’t bring me any other plea, I’m not taking it.’”

So he carried on fighting, working with his lawyers at the Wrongful Convictions Clinic of Duke University’s law school, writing thousands of letters, filing habeas petitions. At times he got close to proving his innocence in court, only to be knocked back. But he never lost hope.

“I made a conscious effort that prison wasn’t going to destroy me, that I was going to grow up inside the right way and not like a convict. I grew up in there. It changed my view of the world, helped me learn how to sacrifice and hold on to your principles. To fight and not give up.”

Dontae Sharpe enters a Pitt County courtroom to the cheers of his family after a judge determined he could be set free on a $100,000 unsecured bond on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019 in Greenville, North Carolina.
Dontae Sharpe celebrated after a judge determined he could be set free, in August 2019. Photograph: Deborah Griffin/AP

Footage included in a BBC documentary on Sharpe’s case shows the scene in court in 2019 when the judge ordered a new trial and the prosecutor dismissed all charges. Sharpe is seen slumped over the defendant’s desk, head in his hands, shoulders heaving with immense sobs.

What was he thinking in that moment?

“I couldn’t believe it. I was scared, fearful. Of the new life. Going back into a new society. Just the fear of the unknown.”

Within hours he was a free man. But his ordeal was not over.

Sharpe was one of hundreds of exonerated Americans who have been released from prison, their wrongful convictions overturned, who remain trapped in a form of judicial limbo. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 2,891 people have been exonerated in the US since 1989, but for many of them their struggle for justice carries on long after the prison gates have been flung open.

After Innocence, a non-profit organization that has helped more than 800 exonerees in the US after their release, points out that in 13 states, including Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania, exonerated prisoners are offered zero compensation. Other states offer meagre recompense – in Wisconsin it’s $5,000 for each year of imprisonment, capped at $25,000.

Several states impose a pardon trap, whereby prisoners who have proved their innocence to the satisfaction of a judge still have the pall of their wrongful conviction hanging over them pending a formal pardon. In Maine, all compensation is withheld until the governor grants a pardon – an Alice in Wonderland concept given that the former prisoner has to ask to be pardoned for something they never did.

“I believe most Americans expect that if you can prove in a court that you were imprisoned for a crime that you did not commit, then you should be eligible for compensation,” said Jon Eldan, founder and director of After Innocence. “But under North Carolina’s current compensation statute, for many exonerees, innocence will not be enough: you must receive a pardon, which is in the sole discretion of the governor.”

When Sharpe emerged from 25 years in prison he found that his fate remained entirely in the governor’s hands. In North Carolina, prisoners like Sharpe whose cases are not picked up by the state’s Innocence Inquiry Commission are left at the mercy of the governor’s discretion.

For more than two years Sharpe had to live with the consequences. He was a free man, but in the absence of a pardon he had no right to claim compensation and struggled to find work.

Prospective employees expressed unease about his overturned murder conviction, exoneration notwithstanding. While he was in prison he ran the commissary for 10 years, gaining a reputation as a skilled and reliable store manager – yet in the outside world he could not even get a job stocking warehouse shelves.

“Employers would ask if I had a felony. I would explain I was exonerated, but a lot of times people don’t listen to you. They don’t hear,” Sharpe said.

Finding a place of his own also turned out to be difficult. Property owners balked at renting to a man once classed a felon, exoneration be damned. It took the intervention of Forward Justice, a non-partisan law center working in the US south, to secure him a home.

Sharpe said he grew used to the limitations of living as a free yet unpardoned exoneree. But it irked him.

“It made me feel, dang, being innocent you’re still not worthy or worth it to society. I did nothing to get a murder on my record, but it’s still got me looked down upon. It felt like I wasn’t talking when I’m talking, like folk weren’t hearing me, like I wasn’t even human.”

The final push for a pardon came in September when the Rev T Anthony Spearman, president of the North Carolina NAACP, began what has become known as the Freedom Friday vigils outside the governor’s mansion. The vigils were joined by the Rev William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.

The alliance kept up the pressure until Cooper granted Sharpe the pardon. Despite the victory, Barber told the Guardian that the struggle should have been unnecessary.

“Once the courts exonerated Dontae, he should have been pardoned the same day. Innocent people shouldn’t have to wait years to clear their names and to be eligible for compensation from the state. North Carolina must end its pardon system where the governor holds all the power through a process that lacks any transparency,” he said.

Sharpe said the pardon will now allow him to move on. There’s a large financial implication: given his years of imprisonment he will be able to claim maximum compensation of $750,000, which he hopes to use to buy his mother a house and to set up a foundation helping families devastated by wrongful convictions.

The Freedom Friday vigils will continue, pressing the governor to pardon other exonerees caught in limbo. Sharpe, who now works with Forward Justice campaigning for automatic pardons in North Carolina, plans to campaign along with them.

But first there is Thanksgiving. He’ll be celebrating at his mother’s home in Greenville. “I’m going to sit back and be thankful for my family and my mom, because for a long time I didn’t know whether I’d ever be with them again.”

He plans to do the cooking. “Probably deep-fried turkey,” he said.


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