Innocent Man Joseph Sledge, 70, Freed After 37 Years in North Carolina Prison
An innocent man who spent nearly four decades behind bars was released from a North Carolina prison on Friday after a three-judge panel agreed he did not commit a 1976 double murder.
The Associated Press reports 70-year-old Joseph Sledge was freed after the judicial panel unanimously voted he did not stab to death Josephine Davis, 74, and her 53-year-old daughter Ailene Davis in their Elizabethtown home. He was released from jail by the same deputy, now the Columbus County sheriff, who locked him up after his arrest.
Last month, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission (NCIIC), a government agency established by the state legislature in 2006 to investigate post-conviction claims of factual innocence, recommended Sledge’s case for judicial review after new evidence raised serious doubts about his involvement in the killings.
WRAL reports Sledge, then 32, had been serving a four-year sentence at a prison work farm for larceny when he escaped a day before the Davis murders. In addition to this decidedly inconvenient coincidence, two of Sledge’s fellow inmates claimed he had confessed to slaying the women while searching for a place to hide following his escape.
But in recent years, court clerks discovered a misplaced envelope of evidence while cleaning out a high shelf in a vault. Inside was hair found on one of the victims. Although DNA testing was not available at the time of Sledge’s 1978 trial, the availability of the lost evidence could certainly have helped prove his innocence in later years. After testing, it was determined that neither the hair, nor any of the other evidence found at the crime scene — including other DNA and fingerprints — belonged to Sledge.
It has also emerged that Herman Lee Baker, one of the inmates to whom Sledge allegedly confessed, had been “fed details” of the case by prison officials, raising the possibility that Sledge was framed by the state.
“[They told me to] to say that Joe Sledge talked to me about doing a murder,” Herman Lee Baker, now 64, told the NCIIC.
“I was in the hole for possession of marijuana and heroin,” Baker testified before the NCIIC on Wednesday. “They came and talked to me and took me to the warden’s office and told me they’d give me a deal [if I said Sledge admitted to the crime]… They would drop the [drug] charges… I was scared… I wish I never did it.”
Baker signed an affidavit in 2013 recanting his incriminating courtroom testimony. The testimony of another jailhouse informant proved inconsistent as well.
The case was referred to the NCIIC, the only state agency of its kind in the United States, in 2013. Sledge is the eighth prisoner exonerated by the commission, which has investigated more than 1,500 claims since going operational in 2007. The Innocence Project, a national non-governmental group dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals, lists 325 such exonerations since DNA testing began.
In North Carolina, half-brothers Henry McCollum, 50, and Leon Brown, 46 were released from prison last September after serving 30 years behind bars for the murder and rape of an 11-year-old girl which they did not commit. DNA evidence was the key to their exoneration. In an ironic twist, US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once cited the case as proof that no innocent person has ever been executed in America. While technically correct, Scalia’s assertion has in turn been cited by death penalty opponents who point to the dangers of executing innocent people as a reason to abolish capital punishment.
About an hour after the judges’ ruling, Sledge walked out of the Columbus County Jail in Whiteville, where he was warmly embraced by relatives.
“I just thank God to be alive and thank the [North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence] and the Innocence Commission for sticking by this case and making it really happen,” Sledge said.
Sledge said he would live with family in Savannah, Georgia. He told reporters he never doubted he would be freed one day, even after spending half of his life behind bars.
“I had confidence in my own self, the self will and the patience,” he said.
Christine Mumma, Sledge’s attorney and executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, told WRAL that there was “no question” that justice has been served, adding that “it’s a tragedy for him to be released after 37 years, at 70-years-old.”
But the victims’ relatives expressed their profound disappointment at the development.
“We, the family, are heartbroken by this decision,” Josephine Davis’ granddaughter, Katherine Brown, read from a prepared statement during Sledge’s hearing. “District Attorney Jon David states that he will be reopening this case, and we, the remaining family members, are shocked by this change.”
But David apologized to Sledge in court, saying “there’s nothing worse for a prosecutor than convicting an innocent person,”
“The ‘sorry’ is imperfect to convey the magnitude of what happened with respect to this man’s life,” he added.
Sledge apologized to Brown. “I’m very, very sorry for your loss, [and] I hope you get closure in this matter,” he said.
Asked what he looked forward to doing as a free man, Sledge told reporters he wanted to go swimming, eat salmon and sleep in his own bed.