Georgia keeps inmates in prison, despite DNA results that could clear them

by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:

ATLANTA - Kisha Pitts wasn't particularly close with Sandeep "Sonny" Bharadia when he went to prison 15 years ago.

But she’s one of the most important people in his life now.

"Every day, I think about Sonny all the time," Pitts said. "He's missed a lot of his life."

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Pitts was an alibi witness who said Bharadia couldn't possibly have broken into an apartment in suburban Savannah or sexually assaulted the young woman who walked in on the burglary.

Pitts saw Bharadia in metro Atlanta while the crime was being committed.

"I told the truth as I knew it to be, based on the facts that I knew were accurate," recalled Pitts. "I'm 100 percent sure that if it happened that weekend, he couldn't have done it."

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Pitts said she remembered the weekend clearly because she attended a close friend's wedding reception that Friday night. Early the next morning, Bharadia arrived to fix Pitts' van. That Saturday night he took her three young daughters to see the new "Harry Potter" movie at the Starlight drive-in theater.

Bharadia's girlfriend, who went with them to the movie, also testified at his trial. But court transcripts show prosecutors tripped her up on the dates while she was on the stand, getting her to testify they may have gone to the movie the weekend before. The movie didn't open until Nov. 16, the weekend of the crime, but Bharadia's defense attorney failed to point that out to the jury.

That Sunday morning, Pitts said Bharadia came back to her Stone Mountain home to borrow her husband's tools, and returned them before sundown Sunday evening.

Driving the 250 miles to Savannah and back in between would have been impossible.

"There's a man sitting in prison for a crime he didn't commit," said Pitts. "I guess when you think of Lady Justice being blind, it makes me feel like there's always one eye open, and it's not always looking for facts.”

NO PHYSICAL EVIDENCE

There was no physical evidence tying Bharadia to the crime.

The jury convicted him based on the victim's identification, even though she was blindfolded for most of the encounter, and the testimony of Bharadia's friend, Sterling Flint, a career burglar who was caught with the victim's belongings.

"I don't even see how [Flint] was a credible witness. He had everything to lose," said Pitts.

Flint also had the pair of gloves, which the victim identified as the ones worn by her attacker. Flint told police that Bharadia gave him the gloves and the victim's belongings.

"Flint was trying to figure out how he was going to get out from under this crime. I am sure he knew that he was in incredible trouble," said Georgia Innocence Project director Aimee Maxwell.

The crime happened in 2001, and the judge sentenced Bharadia to serve life in prison in 2003.

Bharadia always maintained his innocence, even rejecting prosecutors' offer of a plea deal which would have had him serve 10 years in prison. He would have been released in 2011, the same year the Georgia Innocence Project joined his case.

"I don't think the trial lawyer thought for even a second about testing the DNA on those gloves," said Maxwell.

During an appeal in 2004, DNA from skin cells found inside the gloves was tested and determined not to belong to Bharadia, but at the time, no one ran the DNA results through the CODIS database to determine whose it was.

In 2012, the Georgia Innocence Project convinced a judge that the DNA from inside the gloves should be identified.

The DNA matched Sterling Flint.

UNRELIABLE EVIDENCE?

By then, Flint had already served time for receiving the victim's stolen property from Bharadia, and was already back in prison for another series of more recent burglaries.

Flint has since been released on parole and lives in Atlanta. When reached by phone, he declined to comment about the case.

At the time of the crime, the victim picked Sonny Bharadia out of one line-up. She also said she recognized Flint in another line-up, but did not positively identify Flint. Police lost both sets of photos before trial, but the results were used to convict Bharadia anyway.

"It's horrendous, it's astounding," said Dr. Stephen Cole, an adjunct professor at Emory University, who has researched eyewitness identification for roughly 40 years.

Cole has consulted on more than 100 cases, including Bharadia's, and has never seen a line-up misplaced, before or since.


Take this test to see how good of an eyewitness you are. Can you pick the right suspect?


He said the victim was in a highly stressful situation, was identifying someone of a different race than her own, and wasn't shown the photo arrays until 10 days after the crime.

"Any one of these factors that we're talking about can significantly decrease the likelihood of an identification," said Cole.

At least 329 inmates have been exonerated by DNA since 1989. Roughly 75 percent of those were wrongly identified by eyewitnesses.

"It is staggering," Cole said. "By far the most unreliable kinds of evidence are those of eyewitness identification."

Georgia's Supreme Court has already upheld the trial court's denial of a new trial.

Bharadia has one last-ditch hearing remaining later this summer where his attorneys plan to argue his original attorney was ineffective for several reasons, including his failure to test the gloves for DNA.

Sonny Bharadia signed an affidavit requesting to be interviewed for this story, but Georgia's Department of Corrections denied that request.

The state also refused to allow reporters to visit Bharadia or to speak with him by phone.

GEORGIA LAW FALLS SHORT

"The whole goal of the criminal justice system should be to find the truth," said Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, a former legislator.

Benfield drafted Georgia's DNA statute which allows for defendants to get old evidence tested for DNA years after they've been convicted.

She intended for defendants who get DNA results that could clear them, to also get a new trial.

"It's beyond frustrating, it's a tragedy," said Benfield. "The No. 1 cause of wrongful conviction is faulty eyewitness identification."

She said Georgia prosecutors and victims' groups fought part of the legislation which mandated a new trial. She passed what she could, but wishes she'd done more.

"What's the point of doing testing if you can't get it back in front of the court and have a new trial?" Benfield quipped, adding that Georgia's justice system is falling short and innocent people are paying the price.

"It's a breakdown in the system, and I think it's something that should be corrected by the legislative body," said Benfield.

In February, Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spotlighted another case of the system's potential failure. Devonia Inman is serving life in prison for murder, despite DNA evidence from inside a ski mask that matches a different killer.

The judge during Inman's original murder trial denied his request to introduce Hercules Brown as an alternate suspect. A decade later the Georgia Innocence Project was instrumental in getting the testing that revealed Brown's DNA inside the mask.

Brown was convicted of murdering two other people after Inman was arrested.

"It's especially heartbreaking when I hear the facts of [Inman's] case, that there were two victims subsequent to this crime because the wrong person was convicted," said Benfield.

Kisha Pitts hopes legislators will be convinced, before anyone else spends life in prison without the chance to use new evidence to prove their innocence.

"Most people can go to jail based on DNA," said Pitts, "So I don't understand how the same thing that can incriminate you, can't clear you."