Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina on Friday granted a pardon to a man who spent more than 24 years in prison for murder before a judge vacated his conviction in 2019, finding that a key witness had “entirely made up” her testimony.
The pardon for the man, Montoyae Dontae Sharpe, clears the way for him to seek compensation from the state and comes after prominent pastors and others had demonstrated outside the governor’s mansion in support of Mr. Sharpe.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Mr. Sharpe, 46, of Charlotte, said in an interview on Friday. “My name has been cleared, and me and my family can move on. And I can go on with the next stage of my life, which is to still help other guys behind me.”
In 1995, Mr. Sharpe was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of George Radcliffe, who was found fatally shot in his pickup truck in Greenville, N.C., on Feb. 11, 1994.
During the trial, Charlene Johnson, who was 15, testified that she saw Mr. Sharpe, who is Black, shoot Mr. Radcliffe, who was white, in a face-to-face altercation over a drug deal, according to one of Mr. Sharpe’s lawyers, Theresa A. Newman, who was a co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke University School of Law.
Ms. Johnson testified that Mr. Sharpe and another man then put Mr. Radcliffe into the truck, crashed it into a vacant lot and threw away the key, Ms. Newman said.
Ms. Johnson recanted her testimony weeks later, and Mr. Sharpe’s efforts to overturn his conviction worked their way through the courts until 2019, when a Superior Court judge in Pitt County, N.C., held two evidentiary hearings that destroyed the case.
After the second hearing, on Aug. 22, 2019, the judge, G. Bryan Collins Jr., found that if the case were tried again, Ms. Johnson would testify that “she was not present at the time of the shooting and that her trial testimony was entirely made up based on what she saw on television and what investigators told her.”
Judge Collins also found that the medical examiner who had testified at the trial, Dr. Mary Gilliland, learned of Ms. Johnson’s testimony only “well after the trial was over.” If Dr. Gilliland were called to testify at a retrial, the judge found, she would testify that Ms. Johnson’s initial description of the shooting was “medically and scientifically impossible.”
Mr. Radcliffe had been shot in the arm, and Ms. Johnson’s description of a face-to-face confrontation “didn’t line up with the trajectory of the bullet through the body,” Ms. Newman said.
Judge Collins vacated Mr. Sharpe’s conviction, released him from prison and granted his motion for a new trial.
That same day, the Pitt County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the murder charge against Mr. Sharpe and refused to retry the case on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
Mr. Sharpe then spent the next two years fighting for a pardon, Ms. Newman said, before Mr. Cooper granted it on Friday.
“I have carefully reviewed Montoyae Dontae Sharpe’s case and am granting him a Pardon of Innocence,” Mr. Cooper, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Mr. Sharpe and others who have been wrongly convicted deserve to have that injustice fully and publicly acknowledged.”
Ms. Newman said the pardon would allow Mr. Sharpe to petition the state for compensation of $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment up to $750,000 — the most Mr. Sharpe could receive for the 24 years he spent in prison.
Mr. Sharpe said he had been sustained throughout the decades by his faith in God, his lawyers, the pastors who supported him and his mother, who gave him the strength to resist pressure from prosecutors to accept plea deals that could have resulted in his release from prison.
“If it weren’t for them, it would have been bad,” Mr. Sharpe said. “I would have still been in there, most likely.”
At a rally outside the governor’s mansion on Friday, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a North Carolina pastor, celebrated the “tremendous, tremendous news” of Mr. Sharpe’s pardon and asked those in attendance to think of all those who fought for Mr. Sharpe throughout the years.
“This was a family victory,” Dr. Barber said, adding that Mr. Sharpe deserved special praise.
“He has more courage than any man that has ever sat in that governor’s office — or woman — and more courage than anybody that’s ever sat in the state Legislature,” Dr. Barber said.
Mr. Sharpe said he hoped to use his pardon to fight for others who have been wrongfully convicted and are seeking to clear their names.
“I know there are more cases out there like mine because the system isn’t perfect,” he said. “We can change the system and my case is just a steppingstone for me to step out and help change the system.”