If righteous indignation could pry open the gates of power, North Carolina NAACP President T. Anthony Spearman would have the pardon for Dontae Sharpe in his hands by now.
For seven days, the sinewy 70-year-old has sat in a green camping chair and slept in a tent pitched beneath a Magnolia tree outside the Governor’s Mansion. He’s there in a dogged protest.
“I’m taking a stand, sitting,” he tells me from beneath a royal purple cap, his eyes fixed upon the brick and iron gate.
Last Wednesday, Spearman received what would normally be good news: that Governor Roy Cooper intended to pardon Sharpe, who was released from prison in 2019 after serving 26 years for murder, for which he’s long professed innocence. Sharpe was exonerated, but is yet to be pardoned. An official pardon will allow him to see compensation from the state for wrongful conviction.
Sharpe’s pardon application has been received, a spokesman from the Governor’s office told the INDY, noting Cooper has granted seven pardons of innocence during his tenure.
“The Governor plans to make decisions on this and other cases by the end of the year,” Press Secretary Jordan Monaghan said in an email.
That’s not good enough for Spearman, who sees the delay as a politician’s gamesmanship. For Spearman, three extra months is just more time stolen from Sharpe, who was robbed of his youth by a corrupt criminal justice system. So, heeding a spiritual call, Spearman vows to remain outside the mansion until Gov. Cooper signs the pardon.
“Slide it under the gate!” Spearman shouted during a Friday vigil.
Diana Powell, executive director of NC Justice Served, has joined Spearman. The duo plans to continue hosting demonstrations outside the mansion every Friday until Sharpe receives a pardon. Last week, about two dozen residents gathered alongside them for the Freedom Friday protest, listening to Sharpe and a phoned-in sermon from the Rev. William J. Barber II.
So far, they’ve heard nothing from Cooper.
“We’ve been getting a little pushback from security,” Powell said Monday afternoon. “Petty stuff, like having chairs on the sidewalk.”
Sharpe was just 19 in 1994 when he was accused of murdering 33-year-old George Radcliff in a drug deal gone wrong. Since the beginning, Sharpe has maintained his innocence. Expert testimony discredited the prosecution’s theory of how the shooting that killed Radcliff occurred and Sharpe was granted a new trial in 2019. Lacking forensic evidence, Pitt County’s district attorney declined to pursue a new trial.
For two years, Sharpe’s pardon has collected dust on Cooper’s desk. Under state law, once pardoned, he’ll be eligible to receive $50,000 for each year spent in prison, up to a maximum of $750,000.
Without the pardon, Sharpe says he has struggled to find employment.
Spearman says he was depressed after learning another North Carolina exoneree, Glen Edward Chapman, was struggling following his release, according to his family. Chapman served 13 years in prison before he was freed in 2008 when charges against him were dropped.
He has also not been granted a pardon yet. His petition has seen three governors in office.
“They deserve to be dignified. I’m tired of it,” Spearman says. “We need truth, transparency, and accountability and we need it now.”
Spearman approached the vigil’s portable podium wearing a gray Black Lives Matter sweatshirt.
“Truth be told, you are all standing in my bedroom,” he joked. “I’m following the call of the almighty to be here and it’s not going to be pretty. It’s going to be real.”
Sharpe also attended the vigil Friday. He commanded a humble presence. He thanked Cooper for the anticipated pardon and told the crowd this wasn’t about justice in his case, but addressing a broken criminal justice system.
“I’m not even worried about me, I’m focused on the guys I left in there,” Sharpe says.
With a simple stroke of a pen, Spearman says Cooper could pardon Sharpe today.
“He does not have to wait,” Spearman says.
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