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New DNA Evidence But No New Trial

Posted: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013

BY BILL RANKIN - THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

The special ed teacher remembered the man. She also remembered the blue-and-white gloves he wore when he put the knife to her throat.

She identified that man as Sandeep “Sonny” Bharadia, who was convicted 12 years ago of a terrifying sexual assault and locked up for life. But DNA later recovered from the blue-and-white gloves did not come from Bharadia. It came from another man and authorities know who he is.

This revelation has been of no help to Bharadia. Lawyers from the Georgia Innocence Project, who insist the 39-year-old Stone Mountain man did not commit the crime, are asking the Georgia Court of Appeals to allow Bharadia to receive a new trial.

The sexual assault occurred in Thunderbolt, a suburb of Savannah, two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In halting testimony, the school teacher said her attacker told her he had broken into her apartment on orders from al-Qaeda. The terrorist group, he said, wanted him to take her computer because of some information that had been downloaded onto it.

The Auburn, Ala., native testified she had just moved to the Savannah area for her first job at a local middle school. On Nov. 18, 2001, she returned from church and found things amiss, with her computer piled on a chair.

Then a man stepped out from behind a door.

“He looked like he wasn’t expecting me,” she testified during the June 2003 trial.

He put his hand over her mouth and told her not to scream. He pushed her into her bedroom closet and told her to take off her clothes. He covered her head to shield her view. He put a knife to her throat and said: If you do anything stupid, I’ll kill you, she testified.

Speaking with a thick Middle Eastern accent, he said he knew everything about her parents. He recited their Alabama address and her father’s name and said he could hurt them too.

All the while, she noted, he wore a pair of distinctive blue-and-white gloves.

He later moved her onto her bed, where he blindfolded and bound her. He then committed aggravated sodomy and aggravated sexual battery, prosecutors said.

The woman testified that there were times when she could see her attacker. She also thought she could hear him talking to another man outside.

If she called police, she would be killed, he said. He left with her computer, CDs, jewelry and camera.

The woman called her aunt and drove to Macon, where her mother picked her up and took her to Auburn. Once home, the victim’s mother would tell the jury that her daughter was “a basket case.”

She took every knife from the kitchen and assembled them in her room for protection. She walked through the house wielding a poker from the fireplace. She told her parents not to contact the Thunderbolt police, because her attacker said the department had been infiltrated by al-Qaeda.

Her parents initially went to the FBI. Eventually, however, they met with a Thunderbolt detective.

Around this same time, police found the items stolen from the teacher’s apartment, as well as the knife and gloves used in the attack. They were found inside a bag in a house in Savannah and the owner of the house told police that her boyfriend, Sterling Flint, had brought them there.

The key breakthrough in the case was due to a tip from an unexpected source: Bharadia.

Bharadia, who testified in his defense, acknowledged he had once been a car thief and operated a chop shop. But he strongly denied having anything to do with the sexual assault. On that Sunday, he was in Atlanta working on a friend’s car, he said.

One witness, whose husband worked with Bharadia in a sheet metal shop, backed up the alibi. She testified that Bharadia came to her Atlanta home that morning to borrow some tools and left around noon. He returned them that same day around 6 p.m., she testified.

That Sunday, Bharadia testified, he also learned that his Chevy Tahoe, which he had loaned to a friend, was in an impound lot in Beaufort, S.C. The next morning, Bharadia, still on parole for his car theft convictions, obtained permission from his parole officer to go pick it up.

After retrieving his SUV, Bharadia said, he asked Flint to follow him back to Atlanta in the Tahoe. But on the drive back, Bharadia said, Flint drove off with the Tahoe, leading Bharadia to call police and report his SUV was stolen.

A few days later, Bharadia received a call from metro Atlanta police who said his Tahoe had been used to commit a number of burglaries, according to testimony. Bharadia told police that Flint had stolen his SUV and he also informed them that Flint had stolen a motorcycle, which was at Flint’s girlfriend’s house in Savannah.

It was that tip that led police to the bag containing the school teacher’s possessions, the gloves and the knife.

Thunderbolt police soon showed the school teacher a photographic lineup of six men. The woman circled a photo of Flint and the photo of another man, saying they looked familiar to her. Later, she was shown another photographic lineup and stopped at one picture, saying she was sure this was the man who’d attacked her: Bharadia.

“When I saw the defendant’s face in the photo lineup, I automatically knew that was who it was,” she testified. “Without any doubt whatsoever. … Those are his eyes. I’ll never forget them.”

Flint was indicted with Bharadia but not charged with the sexual assault. Shortly before Bharadia’s trial, Flint struck a deal, pleading guilty to theft by receiving stolen property. At trial, he testified that Bharadia had given him the bag of stolen items to keep until Bharadia came back to get them.

There was no physical evidence that tied Bharadia to the crime scene. But the victim’s testimony was enough for the jury, which reached its guilty verdict in less than an hour and 15 minutes.

Before the trial, Bharadia turned down a prosecution offer for a 10-year prison sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. At the time, he knew if he declined the deal and was convicted, he faced the prospect of never seeing the outside of a prison wall again.

That was the sentence Superior Court Judge James Bass imposed: life without the possibility of parole.

DNA exonerations often share the same script: a test result that proves the wrongful conviction, a jubilant defendant released after years of incarceration and a stunned victim who had testified she had no doubt in her attacker’s identity.

Bharadia’s case has not followed such a script.

A year after his conviction, Bharadia’s lawyers tested the blue-and-white gloves and learned that DNA found on them did not come from Bharadia. Eight years later, the Georgia Innocence Project obtained an order to have the DNA found on the gloves run through a national database that contains the results of samples obtained in criminal cases as well as samples collected from inmates.

In April 2012, the GBI found a match: the DNA from the gloves belonged to Flint.

Armed with this result, Bharadia’s lawyers returned to Bass and asked for a new trial. They said the DNA results show that Flint, now in prison for burglaries, committed the sexual assault.

In January, Bass said that the DNA match, along with Bharadia’s denial of guilt and his alibi witness, might produce a different verdict: not guilty. But the judge found that Bharadia had not cleared all the procedural hurdles necessary to obtain a new trial, such as the fact that he knew about the gloves before trial and did not have them tested.

In recent arguments, Chatham County prosecutor Stacy Goad told the Court of Appeals that “the gloves are not the smoking gun the defendant would have you believe.” They were found 10 days after the sexual assault and could have been worn by a number of people during that time, she said.

But Alissa Jones, one of Bharadia’s lawyers, said Flint testified that he had nothing to do with the bag that contained the gloves. “Sandeep Bharadia is innocent of these crimes,” she said.

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GIP RECEIVES CY PRES AWARD

We are so excited....

GIP just received a Cy Pres award in the amount of $14,220.23!

GIP thanks all the attorneys and the judge in the class action, Jackson v. Metscheck, for agreeing to award the Cy Pres money to GIP. This money will make a significant impact on our work.

BACKGROUND: Jackson v. Metscheck involved background checks of prospective employees. In a class action case, after all the class members' claims are paid, there is often an amount remaining because members of the class could not be located or did not claim their portion. This residual amount is called the Cy Pres fund. The parties then can direct these fund is to ensure equal access to justice.

http://www.jacksonfcrasettlement.info/

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THANK YOU FOR SUPPORT IN THE TROY DAVIS CASE

The Georgia Innocence Project (GIP) is grateful for the attention and encouragement of our supporters during the Troy Davis case.

Obviously, the outcome was not what any of us wanted.

Although GIP has never taken a policy position on the death penalty, this case had serious flaws with the evidence.

There was no physical evidence proving Mr. Davis’s guilt. The original eyewitness testimony was flawed scientifically, and based on post-conviction information from the majority of the witnesses, their statements had also been tainted by police pressure.

Of the 273 DNA exonerations nationwide, eyewitness misidentification was a factor in the wrongful conviction more than 75% of the time.

It was on this basis that we registered our opposition to Georgia’s execution of Mr. Davis.

GIP will continue to fight to combat the factors that lead to wrongful conviction and will continue to work with science and the law to free those whose claim of actual innocence we are able to prove.

We call on you to continue to support GIP in this fight.

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Innocence Network Urges Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles
to Reconsider Order Denying Clemency to Troy Davis
 

Calls On Chatham County DA to Withdraw the Execution Warrant 

Contact:  Lisa George, Georgia Innocence Project:
404-373-4433 / 404-373-4433 / lisa@ga-innocenceproject.org OR
Paul Cates, The Innocence Project
212/364-5346 / 917/566-1294 / pcates@innocenceproject.org
 

(ATLANTA, GA; September 20, 2011) Today the Innocence Network submitted a letter to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles urging the board to reconsider its decision denying clemency to Troy Davis who is scheduled to be executed tomorrow.  The letter urges the Board to stay Davis’s execution so that it can hear from a scientist and eyewitness identification expert who had hoped to testify before the Board on Monday about the many problems with the identification procedures used in Davis’s case.  The Network and the Project sent a separate letter to Chatham County District Attorney Larry Chisolm, urging the District Attorney to withdraw the execution warrant against Davis.  

“The identification procedures used to convict Davis would never pass muster today.  In their haste to build a case against Davis, the police did just about everything that has now been scientifically proven to be wrong, even allowing the witnesses to talk among themselves about the identity of the shooter.  And one of those people who identified Troy is now considered a likely suspect in the murder,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is one of the 66 members of the Innocence Network that has exonerated more than 300 wrongfully convicted individuals.  “For the sake of the integrity of the criminal justice system, we sincerely hope that the Board of Pardons and Paroles will stay

Troy’s execution at least long enough to hear from an expert on memory and identification who can explain the many reasons why Davis may have been misidentified.” 

Davis has always maintained his innocence of the 1989 murder of a Savannah Police Officer.  Since his original trial, a lot of evidence has come to light pointing to Davis’s innocence.  Seven of the nine witnesses who identified him as the shooter have recanted their testimony.  One of the two witnesses who maintain that Davis was the shooter is thought by many to be the real perpetrator.  The other could not have possibly have made a positive identification of Davis from over 120 feet, where she claimed to have seen him that night. 

Misidentification was a factor in 75% of the 273 DNA exonerations.  In 38% of these mistaken identification cases, multiple eyewitnesses misidentified the same person. 

Many groups and prominent people have supported Davis’s plea for clemency including former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI and 51 members of Congress.  Nearly a million people have signed petitions in his support. 

Davis’s execution is scheduled for Wednesday, September 21, at 7 PM EDT. 

A copy of the letter submitted to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole is available at

http://www.innocenceproject.org/docs/2011/Innocence_Network_Letter_GBPP_092011.pdf

A copy of the letter sent to Chatham County District Attorney Larry Chisolm is available at

http://www.innocenceproject.org/docs/2011/Innocence_Network_Letter_Chatham_DA_092011.pdf .    

##

The Innocence Network is an affiliation of organizations dedicated to providing pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted and working to redress the causes of wrongful convictions. The Georgia Innocence Project is a founding member of the Innocence Network.

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BACHMAN YOUTH FUND TO PAY GIP'S RENT

Thanks to a grant from the Bachman Youth Fund, the Georgia Innocence Project will be assured of having a home for the next nine months. A grant awarded April 28, 2011, will pay for GIP's monthly rent for that period.

The Bachman Youth Fund is administered by students from Riverwood High School in Sandy Springs, GA, is led by Ms. Stuart Bachman, a Riverwood graduate, and is funded by her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Bachman.

The students themselves evaluate grant applications and decide how much money to award qualifying nonprofit organizations. A community service component is part of the requirement to particpate in the fund.

GIP thanks the Bachman Youth Fund and applauds its mission not only for its support of GIP but also for its commitment to educating the philanthropists of the future.

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GIP WELCOMES NEW ATTORNEY

Thanks to a two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Alissa Jones has joined the Georgia Innocence Project as a Staff Attorney. A graduate of the Emory University School of Law, Alissa worked for the last two years in the Fulton County Public Defender’s Office. We already know the high caliber of her work, as Alissa served as a GIP summer law intern in 2006.

Alissa will assist GIP Executive Director Aimee Maxwell in case litigation in Georgia and Alabama as well as supervision and instruction of the interns. We are very excited to have Alissa join us.

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UPDATE ON CLARENCE HARRISON
GIP EXONEREE, VICTIM OF A HIT-AND-RUN, WILL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS

If you are also a member of GIP's Facebook page or watch the news here in Atlanta, you may already know that GIP exoneree Clarence Harrison was the victim of a hit-and-run last Thursday, December 16.

We were so grateful to the man who stopped to help Clarence, after others passed him by, that we contacted a local television station to try to find that man (click to view the story). We are delighted to report that we have located Clarence's Christmas angel (story here), and once Clarence is up to it, we hope to arrange a meeting between the two.

fClarence will be out of the hospital in time for Christmas. And at GIP, we could ask for no greater gift this year than to know that Clarence is on the mend.

We wish you and yours a happy holiday season, and we are grateful for your support of the Georgia Innocence Project.

To help support GIP's work financially, please visit our Donations page.

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The Georgia Innocence Project thanks

Einstein's for its generosity

and all of our supporters for dining out on September 20th.

Thanks to you, GIP raised nearly $900!

Stay tuned for info on the next "GIP Dine-Out Night" at a Metrotrainment restaurant.

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GEORGIA INNOCENCE PROJECT'S ALABAMA INITIATIVE
FILES A DOZEN MOTIONS FOR POST-CONVICTION DNA TESTING

July 30, 2010 (Atlanta)

The Georgia Innocence Project's Alabama Initiative today completed the filing 12 motions for post-conviction DNA testing. All of the cases are capital murder cases, and the filings meet a special deadline set last year by the Alabama legislature.

"It has been a year of intense investigation of what started out as nearly 500 cases," said GIP Executive DIrector Aimee Maxwell. "We are grateful that there is this opportunity to prove the truth in these cases; now we hope we'll be able to locate the evidence to test."

Unlike Georgia, Alabama does not have a specific law that provides for post-conviction DNA testing, but in 2009, Alabama lawmakers opened a one-year window for testing in capital cases.

Maxwell marshalled volunteer lawyers from all over Alabama to assist in filing the motions, and GIP law student interns have investigated the cases for the past several months. "We've done our best to investigate these cases as fully as possible in a short period of time with our limited resources. But DNA always leads to the final truth, so finding that evidence is the most important thing now."

Maxwell anticipates that there will be as many as 30 motions filed statewide, as The Innocence Project in New York has taken on some of the cases, and a group at Cumberland Law School in Birmingham, working with the law firm Baker, Donelson has taken others. In addition, some prisoners are filing testing motions on their own.

"We hope this will lead to a broader law in Alabama that provides for post-conviction DNA testing in all cases where DNA might prove actual innocence," said Maxwell.

Support for the Alabama Initiative is provided by the Alabama Law Foundation, the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation, and private donors. To join the fight for justice in Georgia and Alabama by supporting GIP's work, please visit our Donations page.

To read Alabama news coverage on this event, please visit our News page.

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JOIN THE GEORGIA INNOCENCE PROJECT ON FACEBOOK

The Georgia Innocence Project has both a nonprofit page and a Causes page on Facebook. Join us there today!

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2010 CHERNIAK MEMORIAL SCHOLAR NAMED

Jessica Witter, a student at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, has been named the 2010 recipient of the Leeza Cherniak Memorial Scholarship to the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP).

Witter will serve this summer as Senior Intern at GIP, having worked as an intern for more than a year at the nonprofit legal organization which works to exonerate the wrongly convicted. She is a rising third year student at John Marshall, where she is a member of the Criminal Law Society; Witter earned her undergraduate degree in history from Georgia State University.

“I am humbled to receive this honor for doing work that I feel is simply the right thing to do,” said Witter. “While I can only hope to achieve in my lifetime what Ms. Cherniak did in a day, I will continue to strive for excellence this summer at the Georgia Innocence Project.”

Leeza Cherniak, who died in 2007 at the young age of 43, was a highly-respected criminal defense attorney. This is the third year that donations in Leeza Cherniak’s memory have funded a summer scholarship at the Georgia Innocence Project.

According to GIP Executive Director Aimee Maxwell, “Leeza’s work helped those who needed a strong advocate in the criminal justice system, and Jessie has spent the past year training to do just that. I think she’ll be a strong leader for this year’s summer interns, and I think Leeza would be proud.”

Eleven students representing seven law schools and universities will serve at GIP this summer. They will investigate claims of wrongful conviction in Georgia and Alabama.

GIP, established in 2002, has exonerated five Georgia men who collectively served more than 70 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Tax-deductible donations to the Leeza Cherniak Memorial Scholarship Fund can be made by sending a check to the Georgia Innocence Project at 265 North Decatur Road, Decatur, GA 30033 or online here.