Deborah Griffin / AP
RALEIGH, NC – North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper on Friday pardoned a man who spent 24 years behind bars for a murder he has long said he did not commit.
Cooper’s pardon of innocence allows Dontae Sharpe to apply for damages of up to $ 750,000 for her wrongful sentence.
“Mr Sharpe and others who have been wrongfully convicted deserve that injustice fully and publicly acknowledged,” the governor said in a statement, announcing he had pardoned the man after a careful review of the case.
In 1995, Sharpe was given a life sentence at the age of 19 for the first-degree murder of 33-year-old George Radcliffe, whom he was accused of killing a year earlier during a drug deal. Sharpe had maintained his innocence throughout and said in an interview in 2019 that his belief and knowledge that he was innocent guided his refusal to accept offers of a milder punishment in exchange for a confession of guilty.
At a virtual press conference Friday just an hour after Cooper’s announcement, Sharpe said he was disbelieving when his lawyer called him with the news. He said he was still dealing with it and also thought of those who had walked the streets and kept watch on his behalf.
“I’m still in a kind of fog,” Sharpe said. “When dealing with us humans, it can go all the way, yes and no. I did not know what to expect. I believed in a pardon.”
The government’s case against Sharpe was based in part on testimony from a 15-year-old girl at the time, who claimed she saw Sharpe kill Radcliffe, but who later withdrew, saying she was not present at the time of the shooting. She later said her allegations were settled, based on what investigators told her.
Sharpe was in vain in his repeated efforts at a new trial until a former state doctor testified that the state’s theory of the shooting was not medically or scientifically possible. A judge subsequently ordered that more evidence be heard. Sharpe was released from prison in August 2019 after the prosecutor said the state would not pursue a new trial.
The NAACP had long pushed for Sharpe’s release over the years, urging Cooper to issue a pardon of innocence. In recent months, racist justice groups have demanded that the governor grant Sharpe the grace necessary to seek redress for his wrongful sentence. They held guards in front of Cooper’s state residence in downtown Raleigh for several weeks.
Rev. Anthony Spearman, a longtime NAACP leader in North Carolina who was among those who attended a vigil outside the governor’s mansion and pressed for a pardon, said, “This should have happened a long time ago.”
Sharpe thanked Cooper, but called a criminal justice system he considers “corrupt.” He said he planned to celebrate Friday night with his family and will continue to push for other inmates to receive justice.
“My freedom is still incomplete, as long as there are still people who go to jail illegally, if there are still people in jail illegally, and there are still people who are waiting for pardon,” he said.