RALEIGH — In August 2019, on a sweltering day, Dontae Sharpe walked out the front door of the Pitt County Courthouse in Greenville, as a free man after serving 26 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
On Friday, another hot day nearly two years later, about 20 activists and members of social justice organizations gathered with Sharpe in front of the state Capitol in Raleigh to urge Gov. Roy Cooper grant Sharpe a full pardon of innocence.
“That day when it finally happened, it was like a dream. It didn’t seem real,” Sharpe said about the day he was exonerated. “And I still feel like I’m in a dream, just a little bit. I still feel like that when I look around and see things like this,” he continued as he gestured toward the Capitol.
At Friday’s rally, several speakers argued that Sharpe’s wrongful conviction and incarceration were evidence of larger problems of racism and discrimination within the criminal justice system. They also said that full pardons of innocence for exonerated individuals is an important step toward rectifying such injustice.
“You’re looking at a man who had integrity when the system did not have integrity. A man who said, ‘I will not take a plea for something I didn’t do,’” the Rev. William Barber II said. “He represents the great tradition of Black men who have had to walk with their backs straight even when the system was trying to break them and bend them.”
‘A righteous anger’
Throughout his incarceration, Sharpe was offered and refused several plea deals that would have shortened his sentence.
“I’m hot today, but it’s not because of the heat,” Barber continued. “It’s a righteous anger. I’m sick of this.”
Theresa Newman — a lawyer who represented Sharpe and a professor emerita at the Duke University Law School — said an official pardon has both symbolic resonance and important practical ramifications for exonerated people.
“A pardon of innocence is a formal recognition from the state that an error was made,” she said. “It also has real practical consequences. A person who receives a pardon of innocence can then apply to the State Industrial Commission for monetary compensation, $50,000 a year of wrongful incarceration, with a cap of $750,000.”
After he was released from prison, the state gave Sharpe virtually no compensation or support, he said.
“The monetary part, that was the most difficult part of being released,” Sharpe said. “I want to be able to help out my mom, my daughter, my two grandkids, and just have a foundation, because I still don’t have a foundation.”
He added that his mother spent her whole savings sending him money and trying to prove his innocence during his 26 years in prison.
Currently, the governor holds the sole power to trigger state compensation for exonerated individuals by granting a pardon. Several speakers also called for North Carolina lawmakers to pass legislation that would change this system. North Carolina House Bill 877, which was introduced this session, would extend the power to trigger compensation to courts.
Jamie Lau, a law professor at Duke, said the bill would speed up the process of compensation for exonerees. Lau cited a list of recent exonerated people in North Carolina — including Darryl Howard and Howard Dudley — who in many cases waited years to receive any compensation from the state.
“Those pardons of innocence for every single individual, except for Ronnie Long, have come years after their exoneration,” Lau said. “So the individuals who were exonerated were relying on the goodwill of family and friends to help them survive, when the state owed them so much.”
‘No, Governor. No.’
Barber argued that the criminal justice system requires more fundamental change than merely a pardon for Sharpe.
He condemned the necessity of lawyers to work pro bono to defend wrongfully convicted individuals, and he criticized the $750,000 cap on compensation.
He also denounced what he said was the hypocrisy of those who say they support racial justice but don’t support the cause of the wrongfully convicted.
“They killed Dontae Sharpe while he was alive. They buried him alive. You want to know how long his funeral was? Twenty-six years — 13 million and some odd minutes longer than that knee was on the neck of George Floyd. And you think people can say they support Black Lives Matter, when all they’re concerned about is that, and not this?” Barber said. “No, Governor. No.”
Sharpe said that whether or not he personally gets a pardon is not his principle concern. He is also advocating for the six other Black men in North Carolina who have been exonerated but have still not received pardons.
And he said he will keep supporting wrongfully convicted individuals who remain incarcerated.
“This pardon — I’m not begging for it. I’m not pleading for it,” Sharpe said. “I’m just here to put Mr. Cooper and this whole system on notice that I’m going to keep right on talking. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, because there are more guys that I left in there behind me who are innocent.
“There are still so many people left in there.”