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Gov. Cooper’s pardon for 2019 exoneree Dontae Sharpe is overdue, advocates say

Criminal justice advocates rallied and delivered a letter to Gov. Cooper Friday petitioning him to issue a pardon to Dontae Sharpe, who spent 24 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Sharpe, who’s Black, was convicted of the 1994 murder of a George Radcliffe, a 34-year-old white, Greenville man, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. He was 19 when the jury sent him to prison in 1995. Evidentiary hearings during Sharpe’s appeals later uncovered inconsistencies in the account of a 14-year-old girl who served as a key witness.

“This pardon, I’m not begging for it. I’m not pleading for it,” Sharpe said at the press conference before he and his supporters before their march to deliver the letter.

Sharpe did not take any plea deals offered by the District Attorney, insisting on his innocence, said Theresa Newman, a member of Sharpe’s defense team and co-director of Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic. “He says, ‘It was too easy for them to convict me, and I do not want to make it easy for them to release me,'” Newman recalled.

Though exonerated in 2019, Sharpe has not been eligible for compensation from the state until officially pardoned. A pardon would “reaffirm the innocence proven through his exoneration, remove barriers to employment and housing,” a statement from his supporters said.

Cooper granted pardons to five individuals last December, including Ronnie Long, who spent more than 40 years behind bars. Sharpe’s supporters, however, noted that Long’s pardon wasn’t granted until months after he was cleared by a judge and that others have waited for years.

Dontae Sharpe speaking at July 9 press conference in Raleigh .

“I’m just here to put Mr. Cooper, this whole system, North Carolina on notice that I’m gonna keep right on talking. I’m gonna keep on doing what I’m doing because there’s more guys left that I left in there behind me, that me and Ronnie Long left in there behind us that’s innocent.”

In 2019, a judge vacated Sharpe’s conviction after finding the state failed to present sufficient evidence. Evidence presented during appeals revealed that the medical examiner testified without knowledge of the prosecution’s set of facts and positions. Had she known, she would have testified that the 14-year-old witness’s description had been “medically and scientifically impossible.

Automatic pardons needed to expedite the compensation process, lawyers said

Sharpe’s supporters showcased a petition for his pardon signed by thousands of individuals. “Pardon Dontae Sharpe!” They chanted. “Free Dontae Sharpe!”

“Dontae Sharpe at the hands of the state wrongfully spent more years in prison than in freedoms,” said Dennis Gaddy, a founding member of the NC Second Chance Alliance. “Twenty-six years, is an eternity.”

“Since the age of 19, he’s been denied the ability to hold his baby, to raise his child, to attend the funeral services of his loved ones, to support his loving mother, to make a living, and pursue his education to contribute to his community and grow older with his brothers,” Gaddy said.

Once pardoned, Sharpe could apply for compensation to the state Industrial Commission — $50,000 for each year of imprisonment up to $750,000. Ronnie Long received the maximum compensation allowed under state law.

Jamie Lau, a supervising attorney at the Wrongful Convictions Clinic said legislators should pass legislation providing that a judge’s order of exoneration would trigger the compensation process. Because of the current delays, Lau said, “The individuals who were exonerated after all those years were relying on the goodwill of family and friends that helped them survive when the state owed them so much.”

A bill that would have allowed those wrongfully convicted to seek monetary relief right after exoneration failed to pass out of the House Judiciary 2 Committee this year at the General Assembly. Lau said in an email that bill sponsors indicated they were considering incorporating the language into an existing bill.

Sharpe is among several Black men who have been formerly exonerated and are awaiting gubernatorial pardons, said Rev. William Barber, head of the National Poor People’s Campaign, who spoke at the press conference. Barber called on the state to take immediate action and pass laws to grant automatic pardons following exoneration.

Barber said the criminal justice system is broken, that prosecutors and police have not been held accountable for the wrongs they have committed, and should be. “Everybody that ever swears on the Constitution is lying, that they will let the system get away with murder, and support the system more than they will the people that the system hurt,” Barber said.

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Gov. Cooper’s pardon for 2019 exoneree Dontae Sharpe is overdue, advocates say