If ever there was a textbook case to demonstrate the dazzling array of unacceptable problems with our criminal justice system, it is the case of Sandeep “Sonny” Bharadia.
Eyewitness misidentification, law enforcement incompetence, perjured testimony and bad lawyering all played a part in sending this obviously innocent man to prison for life without the possibility of parole. And in spite of recent DNA evidence that would surely exonerate him, he has been denied a new trial on the basis of a loophole in Georgia state law.
The story begins in November, 2001 …
A special ed teacher came home from church to her apartment in Thunderbolt, Savannah, to be surprised by an intruder who put a knife to her throat, bound and blindfolded her, before proceeding to viciously sexually assault her. She would later testify that she had caught only glimpses of her attacker from under the blindfold, but could particularly identify the distinctive blue and white gloves that he wore.
Police “solved” the case when they discovered stolen items from the crime, along with the knife and those distinctive gloves, at a house in Savannah. The owner of the house said that the items had been brought there by her boyfriend, Sterling Flint.
Now, the reason that the police came to be at this house to discover the incriminating evidence was because of a report about a stolen motorcycle. Sonny Bharadia had loaned his motorcycle to his “friend” Flint, but when he refused to return it, Sonny reported it to the police who went to investigate.
When questioned by the police, Flint told them that the knife and gloves belonged to Sonny, and that he had brought the stolen goods to him as well. He agreed to plead guilty to receiving stolen property, and to testify against Sonny as the perpetrator of the attack and robbery.
Sonny, however, had a watertight alibi. He was 250 miles away in Atlanta at the time of the attack. He had been working on a friend’s car, and he had a witness to back this up. The witness, Mrs. Kisha Pitts, continues to maintain to this day that Sonny could not possibly have been in Savannah to commit the crime.
Police, however, arrested both Flint and Sonny. The victim initially picked Flint and another man out of a photo lineup of six men, saying they looked familiar. Later, though, when shown another lineup, she picked out a photo of Sonny.
Before the case came to trial in 2003, Sonny was offered a plea deal. Had he accepted it he would have been out of prison already, but he rejected it because he categorically maintained his innocence of the charges. He was sure that this would be proven in court.
Next, Sonny was to be badly let down by his trial lawyer who failed to ask for those infamous gloves to be DNA tested. This was a crucial error, as we shall see.
Incredibly, in spite of the fact that (1) there was not a shred of physical evidence tying Sonny to the crime, (2) that he had a corroborated alibi, (3) that the police had lost all of the photos used in the lineups, and (4) that his accuser, Sterling Flint, was a previously convicted felon, the jury turned in a guilty verdict and Sonny was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
The most infuriating part of the story, however, is still to be told.
After Sonny had spent a full decade behind bars, the Georgia Innocence Project managed to obtain permission to finally have those blue and white gloves DNA tested. Sonny had long argued that his original lawyer was ineffective in not having this done before the trial. When the results were returned, the only DNA found inside them was a match for (you guessed it …) Sterling Flint.
This evidence would surely overturn Sonny’s wrongful conviction, but to date he has been denied a new trial. Georgia’s Supreme Court has upheld this denial on the basis that the law requires “new evidence” to convene a retrial. Technically, the DNA testing is not new evidence because the gloves were available to be tested at the first trial, even though they were not.
Sandeep “Sonny” Bharadia is innocent. He remains incarcerated because of a flawed criminal justice system.