As I drove to the Pitt County Courthouse last Thursday morning with my wife and sister in tow, I was engulfed by an overwhelming assurance. A winning mixture of justice and victory was in the air. The assurance seemed to emanate from the homegoing service two days before of LaMonte Armstrong, the black man from Guilford County who had been accused of the 1988 killing of Ernestine Compton, a professor at A&T University. Armstrong was convicted on August 21, 1995 and after seventeen long years in prison was released in 2012. Seven years of freedom seemed far too short. Here we were on August 22, 2019 traveling to Pitt County to observe the second evidentiary hearing of Dontae Sharpe, a black man accused of killing a white man back in February 1994, who had been incarcerated for 25 long years.
Dontae had been there before. Judges had found abundant evidence to free him before, but Pitt prosecutors, scared the flimsy frame they had built around him would be exposed, threw a blue tarp coverup over the frame they had hastily erected for the trial, and used it to deflect higher court's attention toward procedural problems, rather than the scientific evidence that proved his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. But this time Judge Bryan Collins of Wake County was in the seat.
Our hope, as we drove to Pitt County was that this would be the day that the court would be in good working order and justice would be served. The energy in the court was electrifying. Attorneys Theresa Newman and Spencer Parris were on point. The two persons giving testimony were on point. Charlene Johnson Frazier, the state's only witness, was just 14 when she told police she saw Sharpe shoot Radcliffe, had recanted her testimony years prior and was sticking to her story and along with autopsy evidence showing that her original testimony could not be true was a great new finding. Joe Cheshire, the nationally known criminal defense attorney, shared some chilling insights. 1994 was a time before open file discovery; a time before police officers kept notes and a time before police officers were held accountable for their actions. "It was a time of trial by ambush" Cheshire said. The courthouse filled with Dontae's supporters hung on every word.
In short, it was a tremendously good day. Judge Collins ruled that Dontae Sharpe, now 44 years old, should have a new trial in the shooting death of George Radcliffe, a crime Dontae never admitted to. When the Pitt County DA stood to announce that they would not seek a new trial, the jubilance burst forth in uproarious shouts that the Judge had warned against. It had been building up for a long time. Dontae Sharpe was set free and the bonus was that the State had no interest in ordering a new trial. Dontae Sharpe, the man of faith, exuding moral strength and spiritual faith, was free and in less than an hour he walked out onto the streets of the city of Greenville.
The protracted legal and investigatory work of the students and lawyers at Duke's Innocence Project, particularly Professors Theresa Newman and Jim Coleman, and the work of Attorneys Caitlin Swain and Daryl Atkinson, co-directors at Forward Justice Law, Policy, and Strategy Center in Durham, have exposed the frame up the original prosecutors threw together, when Dontae Sharpe shocked them by refusing to take the deal they offered before trial--freedom if he would only plead guilty to a lesser crime.
Dontae's mother, Sarah Blakely, kept the case in the spotlight with the help of the NC NAACP and the Pitt County Branch NAACP. During the 25 years NC, in our name, kept Dontae locked up, his mother and her sister visited him regularly until his aunt died. His mother, Sarah Blakely has kept up her daily calls and regular visits. The family is a great source of strength and encouragement for Dontae.
I spent these years primarily in the NC triad region, pastoring churches and a handful of Black men who had also been wrongfully imprisoned and then released because of DNA evidence. I know from working with these brothers, the aforementioned LaMonte Armstrong included, that being exonerated is only the first step in a long road of rebuilding your life. During this quarter century, I became an NC NAACP leader, particularly during my friend and brother, Bishop William J. Barber's leadership, who helped many of us see our NAACP work as an effective vehicle for seeking the Justice of Jesus. As Bishop Barber reminds us, Jesus was a man of color, a Palestinian Jew, who sacrificed His short life to model for all people the need to expose frame-ups by corrupt government systems, such as the Roman system that executed Him 2,000 years ago.
With Bishop Barber, and thousands of other warriors from N.C., we built the inclusive "Moral Monday" movement, now a model for local, state, and national justice movements. Bishop Barber was called to bring the proven effectiveness of the Moral Fusion vision to a nation, hungry for a framework that could bring diverse human beings together across bogus racial categories. When I was elected as President of the State Conference, I decided to visit Dontae. I found Dontae to have a sharp mind and a free spirit, despite his body being locked up. After being searched and led into Dontae's presence, his intellect was most striking. He took pride in setting a strong moral and spiritual model for his mates, "in" and "out," who lacked his groundings.
I can understand how Dontae had the moral strength to refuse the deal the DA dangled in front of him, a few days before trial. You can walk out of the court room a free man, if you will lie about the killing of the white man. Most men go into prison innocent until proven guilty but Dontae walked in guilty and had to be proven innocent. What a travesty to justice.
Every day, in every criminal court in North Carolina, 97% of defendants, the vast majority of whom are Black and Brown men, plead guilty to a lesser crime with their lawyers and the prosecutors both leaning on them at the end. Young black male defendants know they have two and a half strikes against them. First, they are young, gifted, and black. Second, they are males. And, the "half" is added when the victim was a white man.
We are determined to see Dontae scale the heights of freedom by wrapping ourselves around him to ensure the conspiracy against him end.