RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- There is more at stake than just semantics.
For Dontae Sharpe, a judge vacating his murder conviction and life sentence is not enough without a Pardon of Innocence issued by Gov. Roy Cooper. That pardon, instead, can pave the way toward financial compensation and the expungement of DNA samples and evidence.
"We all did what we were supposed to do. We went through the system you set up, filing motions, appeals, go up and down the courts until you get exonerated," Sharpe said at a rally in downtown Raleigh on Friday. "Then when you're exonerated, you want to get pardoned."
Sharpe's case became the subject of a TV documentary, "Final Appeal," which recounted the February 1994 Greenville murder of George Radcliff, Sharpe's arrest, subsequent conviction and life sentence for Radcliff's murder.
Sharpe always insisted he didn't do it. The state's only eyewitness recanted her testimony while the lead police investigator later said Sharpe was wrongfully convicted on dubious evidence.
In 2019, Dr. Mary Gilliland, a former medical examiner, testified at a hearing that had she known more about the eyewitness account of the murder back in the '90s, she would have told the jury then, it was medically and scientifically impossible for the bullet to have traveled the way prosecutors say it did.
When a new trial was ordered, The Pitt County District Attorney's office declined to seek a new trial without forensic evidence.
"Dontae Sharpe at the hands of the state wrongfully spent more years in prison than in freedom. Hear me governor," Dennis Gaddy, NC NAACP's Criminal Justice Chair, exclaimed at the rally. "What we have here is a travesty of justice. Unfair, unjust, immoral and just plain wrong. He's still doing time if you still ask me."
The North Carolina Constitution gives the Executive Branch explicit powers of clemency, including three types of pardons: forgiveness, innocence and unconditional.
The practice, however, has been rather rare. From 2001 to 2019, there had only been an average of one pardon per year. Since 2020, however, Cooper has issued seven Pardons of Innocence, including Ronnie Long and Charles Ray Finch.
"I was glad when I'd seen it, but it also stirred me up to want mine," Sharpe said of the Long and Finch pardons.
A spokeswoman for the governor said the Office of Clemency has received Sharpe's petition and it is under review.