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After 22 years in prison, man fighting for new trial says jury should hear DNA evidence

Sonny Bharadia says after 22 years behind bars his case is proof new evidence doesn’t always mean a new trial. He's hoping a Gwinnett County judge changes that.

Rebecca Lindstrom

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Published: 12:30 AM EDT September 18, 2023
Updated: 11:49 AM EDT September 18, 2023

True crime shows have exploded in the past decade, perhaps blurring our expectations of how our judicial system works. As it turns out, new evidence doesn’t always mean a new trial.

That’s the question right now before Gwinnett County Judge Laura Tate. 

In the past 22 years, Sandeep "Sonny" Bharadia has tried just about every other option to get a new trial. He’s now filed a habeas corpus petition, basically a legal argument that he is being wrongfully detained and should be found innocent, or at least get a new trial.

If Tate disagrees, he will die in prison. A decision could come at any time.

“Most nights I sleep, I cry myself to sleep to this day. It just hurts, it’s like you want this pain to stop. And the person who did the crime keeps getting out of prison," Bharadia said. "Where’s the justice in that? I try not to lose hope, try not to lose faith."

He needs to hold on to hope his attorney said. 

“Every time there is some kind of procedural bar that's put up or some argument that's made, that becomes a fact in the case that then prevents Sonny from getting relief,” said Christina Cribbs, Bharadia’s senior attorney at the Georgia Innocence Project

One of those big procedural bars involves DNA evidence. Police found the batting gloves used by the person who committed the crime. But it wasn’t until after the trial, as DNA technology evolved, that they were tested. 

Turns out, Bharadia’s DNA was not found on the gloves.

“What they did is sort of cut out little pieces of the fabric and they pulled the DNA from those little pieces of fabric,” explained Cribbs.

It wasn’t until 2012, that the DNA was tested against CODIS, a database of convicted offenders and unsolved crimes.  There was a hit. The skin cells found on the gloves matched Sterling Flint, the man who testified against Bharadia.

It’s key evidence the courts have repeatedly ruled Bharadia’s attorneys should have presented at his trial in 2003. But Cribbs argues the technology to do this kind of DNA testing was rarely used at the time.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation forensic biology manager James Sebestyan testified at Bharadia’s hearing this summer and said that in 2003, the GBI primarily tested DNA on blood, semen, and hair. These are DNA of cells – or touch DNA. 

“Nothing ties my client to this case forensically. The person testifying against him as the state's key witness was the only person whose DNA is present at the scene. If the jury knew now what we all knew now, I think there's no question they would not have convicted him,” explains Bharadia’s attorney Holly Pierson.

But the state has argued the victim believes two people could have been involved in the attack. While she recalls seeing them on the suspect during the robbery, he was not wearing them during the sexual assault. The state also argues the gloves found might be a different set than the ones used. So the lack of Bharadia's DNA is only one factor in his potential involvement in the crime.  

Bharadia believes Flint’s effort to pin the crime on him was retaliation. Bharadia said he had no idea an assault had occurred when he called to report Flint, an acquaintance of his, he had stolen his car and was also in possession of a stolen motorcycle. Bharadia said Flint then threatened to kill him. 

It was during that investigation that police discovered items belonging to the sexual assault victim, including the blue and white batting gloves. When police questioned Sterling about it, he denied any involvement and said the stolen items were Bharadia’s. 

“It’s been 7,872 days,” Bharadia told Tate. “I’ve lost my dad, I’ve lost a lot. I’ve lost my life.”

Bharadia has always maintained his innocence. 

It’s why when offered a plea deal to serve 10 years, he said no. Forced then to go to trial, a jury found him guilty of aggravated sodomy, sexual battery, and burglary. 

“I did everything I’m supposed to do. I provided everything I’m supposed to provide. And that’s all I can do,” said Bharadia.

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