RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday granted a Pardon of Innocence for Montoyae Dontae Sharpe, who was released from state prison in 2019 after serving 26 years for a 1994 murder in Greenville.
Sharpe always maintained his innocence. He was granted a new trial in 2019. Expert testimony discredited the prosecution's theory about the murder. With no forensic evidence -- the Pitt County district attorney dropped the case. Sharpe was freed.
But for Dontae Sharpe, a judge vacating his murder conviction and life sentence was not enough without a pardon. It 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 previously. "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.
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.
Since September, T. Anthony Spearman, the 70-year-old president of the North Carolina NAACP, has camped nightly outside of the Executive Mansion, demanding that Cooper grant a full pardon to Sharpe.
Outside of the governor's mansion on Friday, activists cheered the pardon as a family victory.
"Some folks have said to me, 'you can go home tonight.' And I will. But tomorrow is another day," Spearman said on his 52nd night outside.
"You know, people say I want the money. Yeah, the money we did, we deserve the money," Sharpe said. "Not just me, but anybody that's been exonerated deserve that money. And it's not just money you get you get a peace of mind and you get a weight lifted off the shoulder, you know, from carrying around that burden of people still looking at you like you might be a murderer."