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No further prosecution of Dennis Perry for 1985 murder

19 July 2021

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (July 19, 2020) – A man convicted of a 1985 double homicide who was granted a new trial will face no further prosecution after District Attorney Keith Higgins today announced he is declining to further prosecute him. 

Newly discovered DNA evidence shows Dennis A. Perry, 59, formerly of Camden County, may have been acquitted if that evidence had been available during his 2003 trial for the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain at Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Waverly on March 11, 1985. Perry was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences and imprisoned in March 2003. 

Glynn County Superior Court Chief Judge Stephen G. Scarlett, Sr., granted Higgins’ motion to dismiss the charges today. Judge Scarlett previously approved Perry’s motion for a new trial and bond July 17, 2020. All charges against Perry will be dropped as a result of Higgins’ decision not to prosecute a new trial. The victims’ family and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) were consulted prior to Higgins’ announcement. The victim’s family and the GBI agreed with the decision to dismiss the charges. 

“There are times when seeking justice means righting a wrong,” said Higgins, who took office Jan. 1, 2021. “While this case was prosecuted prior to my administration, the new evidence indicates that someone else murdered Harold and Thelma Swain. Mr. Perry is now, and has been since July 2020, a free man. We will continue to examine all the evidence in the case—new and old—as we determine what the next step will be in this investigation.” 

The new DNA evidence centers around a pair of distinct eyeglasses found at the crime scene in 1985. Investigators contend the glasses, which had two hairs stuck in the hinges, belonged to the killer. Mitochondrial DNA testing was conducted using the hair samples prior to Perry’s 2003 trial and excluded him as a possible contributor of the hairs; however, he was convicted using circumstantial evidence at trial. 

In February 2020, private investigators working for Perry obtained a hair sample from a Brantley County woman who is the mother of a man implicated, but not charged, in the 1985 Swain murders. Her hair sample was analyzed by the same lab that conducted the DNA testing on the hair from the glasses in 2001 prior to Perry’s trial. The profiles matched. Because mitochondrial DNA is passed along maternal relatives—like mother and son—this means the son of the woman who donated the hair cannot be excluded as a contributor of the hairs found at the crime scene in 1985. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation re-opened the case as a result of the new evidence. 

On the evening of the murders, the Swains were attending a meeting at Rising Daughter Baptist Church on U.S. Highway 17 in Waverly. Shortly before 9 p.m., an attendee excused herself from the meeting and found a man in the church’s vestibule as she was leaving. The man told the woman he needed to speak with Harold Swain, 66, and briefly peered through the vestibule doors into the main sanctuary where a prayer meeting was being held. The woman went to summon Harold Swain, and then departed the church. Witnesses reported hearing a scuffle, quickly followed by four gunshots. Upon hearing the gunshots, Thelma Swain, 63, ran to the vestibule and opened the swinging doors. When she did so, the killer shot her once. The other meeting attendees ran to the back of the church and the killer escaped. Witnesses attempted to call police, but found the phone lines had been cut, and eventually one witness ran to a nearby store to summon authorities, who arrived a short time later. 

The case quickly went cold, but was re-opened by the Camden County Sheriff’s Office in 1998, eventually leading to Perry’s arrest and conviction. 

Members of the media who have additional questions or need assistance obtaining publicly available court documents may contact the District Attorney’s Office at 912-554-7200.