On Nov. 12, Gov. Roy Cooper granted a pardon of innocence for Montoyae Dontae Sharpe after Sharpe was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1995 and spent 24 years in prison.
“Mr. Sharpe and others who have been wrongly convicted deserve to have that injustice fully and publicly acknowledged,” Cooper said in a Nov. 12 press release.
In 1994, George Radcliffe was found shot to death in a pickup truck in Greenville, North Carolina, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. During the investigation, police interviewed Charlene Johnson, who had turned 14 years old a month after the shooting. Johnson had also recently been discharged following a three week-long voluntary commitment to a psychiatric ward.
Soon after Johnson’s statement to the police, 19-year-old Sharpe was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
Sharpe's arrest and charge occurred despite there being no forensic evidence tying Sharpe to the crime scene and Sharpe having two alibi witnesses — an aunt and the aunt's neighbor, who said Sharpe was visiting them during the time Radcliffe was shot.
While in prison, Sharpe was offered plea deals but he continued to maintain his innocence.
Sharpe was released from prison on Aug. 22, 2019. His charges were dropped, but he was not granted a pardon of innocence. This meant his record could not be cleared and he could not apply for restitution from the government.
“A pardon of innocence is a formal recognition that the person is actually innocent and therefore their conviction and their incarceration was wrongful," Theresa Newman, one of Sharpe’s lawyers, said. "That has a very profound effect on the person who receives it, and it had a very, very profound effect on Mr. Sharpe.”
Newman said Sharpe's case drew significant public attention and that several organizations called on Cooper to grant his innocence.
“All I can see is this side of the process, and there were people camped out in front of the executive mansion, there were rallies to get him the pardon of innocence,” Newman said.
Public outcry played a large role in Sharpe’s call for a pardon of innocence. The N.C. NAACP and Forward Justice, as well as other grassroots organizations, helped organize Freedom Friday Vigils, which were held outside of the governor's mansion.
The N.C. NAACP played a large role in both the Freedom Friday Vigils and the push to free Sharpe. It has a section of its website dedicated to the freedom of Sharpe, including a petition, ways to call the governor, a timeline of what happened and other resources.
Rev. William J. Barber II, president emeritus of the N.C. NAACP, spoke at some of the Freedom Friday vigils, which had been held each Friday since mid-September.
“The actual truth is it should be you're exonerated and you’re pardoned in the same stroke of the pen," Barber said at the Freedom Friday Vigil on Sept. 24. "That’s what it should be.”
Forward Justice is a nonpartisan law, policy and strategy center focused on racial, social and economic justice in the South. The organization helped to spread the word of the Freedom Friday Vigils by posting about the vigils on their social media, as well as posting live recordings of the vigils.
After Sharpe was released, he started working for Forward Justice as the founding fellow in the Returning in Service and Excellence Fellowship, and has worked as an advocate and leader for criminal justice reform.
“I didn’t get justice, I haven’t gotten justice, but I do have the truth and you can’t change that, and my truth brought me out of prison,” Sharpe said at the Freedom Friday Vigil on Sept. 24.
Sharpe now speaks at colleges across North Carolina about his experiences and corruption in the criminal legal system, calling for widespread reform to stop wrongful convictions, Forward Justice states.
On March 28, 2022 from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m., Dontae Sharpe, Ronnie Long and Duke Innocence Project attorneys Theresa Newman and Jamie Lau are speaking at UNC as part of a speakers series called "Race, Innocence, and the End of the Death Penalty." This event is free, open to the public and includes an audience Q&A.
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