Woman's DNA Helped Overturn Double-Murder Conviction — and She Was Found Dead Days Later

Gladys Sparre's autopsy results have not been released and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation hasn't said whether foul play is suspected in her death

Harold and Thelma Swain
Harold and Thelma Swain. Photo: Family Photo

A DNA hair sample convinced a Georgia judge to overturn the double-murder conviction of a man who'd spent 20 years in prison following the 1985 killings of a church deacon and his wife.

Days after the judge overturned Dennis Perry's conviction, the woman who provided the hair sample — which implicated her son, Erik Sparre, as a suspect — was found dead in her home.

Gladys Sparre’s autopsy results have not been released and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation hasn’t said whether foul play is suspected in her death.

Harold and Thelma Swain were murdered on March 11, 1985 inside the Rising Daughter Baptist Church, a predominately Black congregation in Waverly, Ga. Found at the crime scene were a unique pair of homemade glasses with two hairs stuck in the hinges, which authorities believed to be the killer’s.

Although Erik Sparre, who is white, was the subject of the investigation early on, he was never prosecuted after offering an alibi.

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In 1998, the investigation was reopened and soon began to focus on Perry, who had previously been ruled out as a suspect by the GBI. The case against Perry hinged on the testimony of Jane Beaver, the mother of Perry’s ex-girlfriend.

Dennis Perry
Dennis Perry. GBI

According to a writ of Habeas Corpus filed on Perry's behalf, which was obtained by PEOPLE, Beaver was paid $12,000 by the Camden County District Attorney's Office as a reward for her testimony — but the judge, jury and defense were not made aware of this reward.

Sparre first became a suspect in 1986 when the father of his ex-wife shared a recorded phone call with law enforcement in which he bragged, "I’m the motherf----- who killed two n------- in that church and I’m going to kill you and the whole damn family even if I have to do it in a church,” according to a motion for a new trial filed on Perry's behalf, which was obtained by PEOPLE.

Retired GBI Agent Joe Gregory testified in recent court hearings for Perry's motion for a new trial that a phone call from someone claiming to be the Sparre's boss was accepted as an alibi. But during those recent hearings, Sparre's boss disavowed the assertion that he had placed such a phone call.

In his July 17 decision ordering a new trial, Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett wrote, "The new DNA evidence is reliable, substantive forensic evidence indicating that another suspect, Erik Sparre, may have been present at the crime scene."

Scarlett added: "Dennis Perry was convicted of double murder eighteen years after the fact without any physical evidence connecting him to the crime scene. Newly discovered DNA evidence links another suspect, one whose alibi for the night of the murders may have been fabricated, to the key piece of evidence from the crime scene."

The Georgia Innocence Project helped work with Perry's pro bono attorneys to overturn Perry's conviction.

In a written statement, the Georgia Innocence Project urged the DA’s office to not retry Perry.

Sparre has not been arrested or charged in the case. PEOPLE was not able to reach Sparre, and it was not clear if he has retained an attorney to comment on his behalf.

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