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Shadow of doubt
Author: Jeremy Campbell, Erin Gutierrez, Lauren Rudeseal, Blis Savidge, Jessica Noll
Published: 11:30 PM EDT May 26, 2017
INVESTIGATIONS 2 Articles

A woman arrives home to her apartment in Thunderbolt, Ga., a small town just outside Savannah on a Sunday afternoon, Nov. 18, 2001.

She thinks she’s alone.

As she walks inside, she’s surprised to run into a man standing in front of her. He has no mask to conceal his face.

He walks towards her, putting his glove-clad hand over her mouth and demands that she goes to the bedroom.

That’s where he assaults her.

*****

This isn’t a story about a perfect man.

It’s not a story about woman attacked in her home.

This is a story about DNA that could determine once and for all, who the man inside her bedroom was.

EXPLORE

Shadow of doubt

INVESTIGATIONS
Chapter 1

Episode I

Nov. 19, 2001

Sandeep "Sonny" Bharadia once made a living working in a chop shop, but in 2001, he filed a police report for his own stolen vehicle.

Sterling Flint, Bharadia's friend, was behind the wheel of his Chevy Tahoe on a late-night drive back to Atlanta.

The pair was caravanning back from Savannah, Ga., after Sterling agreed to help Bharadia bring his car back to the city. Bharadia was driving his girlfriend’s Ford Expedition while Sterling trailed in the Tahoe. It was dark and Bharadia lost sight of Sterling somewhere along the way on Interstate 675.

After two phone calls and still no Tahoe, Bharadia filed a stolen vehicle report.

Nov. 28, 2001

A week later, Bharadia meets with a detective in Cobb County who said the Tahoe was linked to recent burglaries in the area. Bharadia’s stolen vehicle report pointed to Flint as the suspect in the local crimes, but Bharadia also told the detective that he believed Flint was keeping a stolen motorcycle at his girlfriend’s house in Savannah.

That tip changed Bharadia’s life forever.

Nov. 30, 2001

Bharadia was arrested for the assault and burglary in Thunderbolt, a small town just outside Savannah in Chatham County—population 2,613.

The day before Bharadia and Flint’s drive from Savannah to Atlanta. Another man, who was also arrested in connection to the crime, fingered Bharadia as the suspect in the assault.

That man was Flint.

Bharadia has been behind bars since his arrest in 2001.

His codefendant, Flint, was able to strike a deal with the state, pleading guilty to a charge of receiving stolen property in exchange for his testimony.

In 2003, the case went to trial.

Two witnesses and Bharadia testified that he was in metro Atlanta—more than 250 miles away from Thunderbolt, on the day of the crime. There was no physical evidence—no DNA, no fingerprints—connecting Bharadia to the scene.

One of those witnesses was Sonny’s friend, Kisha Pitts.

According to court transcripts, Pitts testified Sonny was at her house in Atlanta borrowing a set of tools on the day of the attack. Pitts was adamant she saw Sonny on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2001 because it was the same weekend as her best friend’s wedding.

Pitts also remembers the date specifically because Sonny and is then-girlfriend took Pitts’ kids to see "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" that Saturday night.

Pitts’ confidence in her testimony appeared to be a win for the defense.

That victory was short-lived when the second witness—Alicia Colbert—took the stand.

Colbert is Sonny’s former girlfriend. She vouched for Sonny’s whereabouts in Atlanta and confirmed that she accompanied Sonny and the kids to the Harry Potter movie. The problem is Colbert told the court this all transpired on Nov. 11, the weekend before the attack.

But Colbert’s recollection could not be correct because of one easily verifiable fact: "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" didn’t premiere until Nov. 14, 2001.

That fact was never brought up in court. Instead court transcripts show attorneys engaging in a confusing back-and-forth cross-examination. Alicia Colbert doubled-down and insisted that she went with Sonny to the movies on Nov. 11.

The mix-up was never resolved. The jury was forced to decide for themselves.

Alibi witness testimony

The Verdict

Nevertheless, it took a jury just over an hour to convict Bharadia of aggravated sexual battery, aggravated sodomy and burglary. The linchpin of the case came from the victim who identified Bharadia as her attacker in a photo lineup and pointed him out to the jury in open court.

Bharadia had pleaded guilty to three felony charges related to car theft and operating a chop shop prior to the incident in Thunderbolt, making his latest felony conviction a mandatory sentence—putting him behind bars for the rest of his life.

Eight years after the verdict, Bharadia’s new lawyer uncovered that a pair of gloves worn by the attacker was never tested for DNA. That test came back with a positive match.

The DNA didn’t implicate Bharadia. It pointed the finger at Flint, the man who testified against Bharadia.


Chapter 2

The Technicality

To understand how a piece of evidence could be overlooked, we have to go back to the scene of the crime.

It’s Nov. 18, 2001, a Sunday afternoon, at the River Walk Apartments in south Georgia.

Welcome to Thunderbolt.

According to courtroom testimony, the victim described a bizarre and traumatizing attack.

She said she walked into her apartment and found an unmasked man standing inside her apartment. He looked as surprised to see her, as she was to see him. He walked toward her, put his hand over her mouth and told her to go to the bedroom.

Transcript pages: 53-63

The victim distinctly remembered that there was a second person in the room.

She also recalled the man wearing white gloves during the attack. Those gloves would never be sent to the GBI crime lab.

The woman was also able to positively identify photos of her stolen property in open court. However, the stolen items from the victim’s home were found at the home of Flint’s girlfriend.

Savannah Police discovered the items when they went to check out the tip about the stolen motorcycle Bharadia gave the police after he accused Flint of stealing his Tahoe. Police found the victim’s stolen property, which included a computer, a Shania Twain CD, the Grease Soundtrack and jewelry.

They also found a pair of blue and white gloves.

Transcript pages: 69-77

Bharadia filed numerous appeals, including a 2011 motion for a new trial due to the post-conviction DNA testing.

The 2011 motion was denied based on a legal technicality, specific to Georgia law. While the new DNA test results implicated someone else, the gloves themselves were not considered newly discovered evidence since the gloves were presented in the original trial.

The judge said Bharadia and his legal team should have done their “due diligence” to run the DNA before his conviction.

Bharadia has maintained his innocence since the beginning and now, the Georgia Innocence Project is joining him in his fight to freedom in a last-ditch, “Hail Mary” court motion called a Habeus Corpus.

The stakes could not be higher.

Stay with us as we continue to dig into the details of past, and we follow Bharadia’s fight for his future.

PHOTOS | Sonny Bharadia was born in England and grew up in Stone Mountain, Ga.