In prison for 34 years, but 'God knows I'm innocent'

mlocke@newsobserver.comMarch 16, 2013 

  • Key decision-makers

    Michael Easley Assistant district attorney who prosecuted Joseph Sledge in 1978. Became attorney general, then governor.

    John Watters SBI legal counsel in 1997. Replied to a letter from a lawyer trying to help Sledge that the SBI had not been involved in the case. The bureau had agents on the case and had collected dozens of pieces of evidence.

    William “Bill” Gore Former Superior Court judge who in 2003 ordered DNA testing in Sledge’s case but didn’t follow up. Currently a defense lawyer.

    Rex Gore District attorney in Brunswick, Columbus and Bladen counties for 20 years. He located some evidence in the Sledge case in 2005, but it wasn’t tested for three more years. He lost a primary for his job in 2010.

    Jon David Current district attorney in Brunswick, Columbus and Bladen counties. With new DNA evidence available, he will decide whether to ask a judge to free Sledge.

Editors note: Joseph Sledge has spent half his life trying to convince North Carolina court officials that he is innocent of the 1976 Bladen County murders of a mother and daughter. He hopes the recent DNA test on some long-lost hair will soon lead to his release.

Explore this interactive timeline of Joseph Sledge's ordeal that includes audio of Sledge and the SBI report from the 1976 murders.

BAYBORO -- Joseph Sledge’s salvation rested in an envelope misplaced for years on a shelf so high in the Columbus County clerk’s evidence room that no one noticed it.

Sledge has languished in prison for 34 years. Since the 1990s, when the technology became widely available, he has begged anyone who would listen to perform DNA tests on evidence from his trial. Now the courts must reckon with his unwavering proclamations of innocence.

The man who murdered mother and daughter Josephine and Ailene Davis in 1976 left pieces of himself in their bloodied Bladen County home. Investigators found a smattering of head and pubic hairs on the exposed bodies of the Davis women. At the time, the best science available offered limited clues: The killer was a black man, maybe Sledge.

A DNA test performed in December offers a new revelation: The hairs don’t belong to him.

“Miracles happen in their own kind of way,” said Sledge, a slight, shy 68-year-old imprisoned at Pamlico Correctional Institution in Bayboro, east of New Bern.

Sledge is poised to become the oldest and longest-serving inmate in North Carolina found to be wrongly convicted, though he has tried mightily to avoid the distinction. His hand-written letters asking for help fill four files in the Columbus County Clerk of Court’s office.

The letters met resistance or excuses from a cast of prosecutors and judges highly regarded in the state. A 2003 order to find and test evidence went unheeded for five years. It would be another four years before the key evidence – head and pubic hairs – would be found and tested.

In the 1970s, no one imagined where science would lead criminal investigations. Evidence with little value 30 years ago became the proof that dozens of innocent North Carolina men needed to show that the courts had the wrong guy. Although new laws forbid destruction of key evidence in many cases, they do little for the generation of prisoners convicted when evidence was disposed of as easily as trash.

If exonerated, Sledge will be the fifth North Carolina man proved innocent by DNA or fingerprint analysis performed on evidence that had been misplaced or forgotten. For lawyers who investigate innocence work, the reality of lost evidence is a daily frustration.

“We can never feel that there’s closure,” said Christine Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, a Durham nonprofit that investigates claims of innocence. “Unless we can get into the evidence room and the case files ourselves, we can never be confident that someone has done a thorough search.”

Mumma had been investigating Sledge’s case for years, trying to find crime scene evidence and track down witnesses.

Last August, boxes of documents from Sledge’s case covered the floor of her Durham office. She could think of nothing more to do and braced herself for a final visit to Sledge to deliver the news.

Then her phone rang.

Columbus County Court clerks had been cleaning the evidence room, and as assistant clerk Rita Batchelor climbed a ladder to inspect the top shelf, she spotted a thin envelope labeled with a file number and a name: Joseph Sledge.

“His name just stuck out,” said Columbus County Clerk Sheila Pridgen. Because of his letters, “all of us knew him.”

Wrong place, wrong time

Sledge was an impulsive young man who had a habit of showing up in the wrong places at the worst times. In 1976, that sealed his fate.

Sledge, a Georgia native, came to North Carolina by way of the draft during the Vietnam War. He drove a supply truck for the Army at Fort Bragg.

After leaving the Army, Sledge lingered in the state. He found work as a janitor but was soon laid off. Broke and hungry, Sledge stole boxes full of clothes from a department store. In 1973, a judge sentenced him to four years in prison.

One day in 1976, while working on a White Lake Prison Camp work crew picking up highway litter in Bladen County, another inmate quarreled with Sledge and punched him. The inmate was sent to another prison as punishment, Sledge said. The day the other prisoner was due to return to White Lake, Sledge feared he’d try to settle the score.

Sledge, small at 147 pounds, didn’t want to take that chance. After the sun set on Sept. 5, 1976, he climbed a fence at White Lake and hid in nearby woods until the darkness could cover his tracks.

Within hours, less than five miles away, someone would murder the Davis women.

An obvious suspect

The slayings rattled Bladen County, especially young sheriff’s detective Phillip Little. Josephine Davis, 74, and Ailene Davis, 53, lived a mile from him. He had known them his whole life.

Both had been stabbed repeatedly; a pool of blood puddled around them. The killer had lifted their gowns and slips above their midsections and raped Ailene, Josephine’s daughter. The State Bureau of Investigation sent help to hunt for the killer.

Sledge was an obvious suspect: a known criminal with an opportunity. Authorities caught him four days later.

Sledge said he was desperate to cooperate. He detailed his escape route for investigators and showed them where he stashed his prison clothes and others he stole from clotheslines and cars along the way. He consented to give samples of blood and pubic hair.

He said he would have gladly offered a head hair sample, too, but he had been shaving his head since his Army days.

Aside from the coincidence of Sledge escaping the day before the murder, investigators didn’t have enough to tie Sledge to the crime. None of the fingerprints in the house matched his; neither did shoeprints inside the house and outside beneath a bedroom window.

An FBI analyst who examined the hairs Little found on the women’s bodies determined they were “Negroid” and said they were “consistent” with Sledge’s pubic hair.

“The case was very thoroughly investigated based on what we had at our hands,” Little, who retired last year, said in a recent interview.

A year after the murders, the trail was cold. The victims’ family grew impatient and wrote to the SBI asking about progress in the case. The director wrote back Aug. 12, 1977, saying the “Investigation to date has failed to produce sufficient evidence to justify an arrest.”

He promised to keep looking. The governor had promised a reward for information that could solve the crime.

Little and SBI agents hit the road, looking for all the men Sledge had known in prison in the last year.

The snitches emerge

When Little and SBI Special Agent Henry Poole first met Donnie Sutton in November 1977, more than a year after the murders, he had little to say. Sutton, a young man in prison for murder who had also escaped in September 1976, had known Sledge in prison.

Records show that Sutton said he didn’t know anything about Sledge being involved in the murders but that he’d think harder about anything Sledge might have told him.

When investigators visited Sutton again in February 1978, he painted a different picture, saying that Sledge told him that the Davis women were supposed to die. Sutton said Sledge hated white women and called them “she-devils.”

Investigators also found another jailhouse informant named Herman Baker, who was in jail briefly with Sledge after the murders. Mumma, Sledge’s lawyer, said the SBI case file includes no mention of Baker or copies of those interviews. But at Sledge’s trial, Baker’s testimony delivered a decisive blow.

Baker’s memory of Sledge’s comments offered details police had never publicly released. Baker, who was not in prison at the time of the murder, testified that Sledge talked about slugging one of the women in the jaw and that he had sprinkled black pepper in the house to keep the victims’ spirits away from him.

Little had seen the pepper can on his first visit but didn’t take it as evidence. In February 1978, just three months before Sledge’s first trial, Little returned and collected the pepper can.

The first attempt to convict Sledge failed in May 1978, ending in a mistrial.

In August of that year, prosecutors tried again. This time, a fresh young prosecutor joined the team.

Michael Easley had begun working for the district attorney’s office after graduating from law school in 1976. He would go on to become district attorney, state attorney general and, in 2001, North Carolina’s governor.

Easley declined through his lawyers to talk about the Sledge case, saying only that he has spoken to both Mumma and current district attorney Jon David and has offered his assistance in reviewing Sledge’s claim of innocence.

‘It’s scandalous’

Sledge had a funny feeling about the jailhouse informants who convinced a jury he had killed Josephine and Ailene Davis.

He had no memory of ever meeting Baker, and he testified he’d never said anything about being involved in the crime to Sutton. The inmates painted him to be a racist with a violent temper. Their comments still bewilder him.

“I only weigh 147 pounds, then and now,” he said. “How could I be violent with anybody?”

There’s no indication Sledge’s attorney, Reuben Moore of Elizabethtown, was given copies of Sutton’s earlier interviews; he asked no questions about Sutton’s shifting statements.

Four months after Sledge was convicted, the state rewarded Baker and Sutton. Baker collected $3,000. Sutton got $2,000.

“It’s scandalous they were paid,” said Moore, now retired. “I’m not surprised it happened. It’s just amazing we found out about it.”

Little, the sheriff’s detective, said his memory of the case is spotty. But he recalls investigators discussing the rewards after the trial. He does not remember making any promises about the money.

Sutton died in 1991. Efforts by The News & Observer to find Baker failed.

Easley says no

The jailhouse snitches gnawed at Sledge inside prison. He was convinced they were rewarded for their testimony.

He began writing to judges, asking them to investigate. In loopy cursive, Sledge asked again and again for judges to give him another trial.

By April 1983, Easley had become the elected district attorney in Columbus County. Easley replied to one of Sledge’s motions, saying “no promise was made to Herman Baker and Donald Sutton in return for their testimony by the District Attorney’s Office” or the attorney general. In his response, he didn’t mention anything about the rewards for Baker and Sutton. Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood denied Sledge’s request for a new trial.

Sledge spent hours each day in prison law libraries. He dissected every moment of his trial. He read court opinions and memorized legal phrases such as “jurisprudence” and “ineffective assistance of counsel.” He wrote letter after letter, asking judges to examine irregularities in his case.

One evening in 1993, Sledge and other inmates watched a news program in the prison’s common room. A lawyer on television talked about a new kind of science revolutionizing crime scene analysis: DNA. Every person had a unique profile that could be detected in their blood or semen or hair.

Sledge remembers thinking: “Here’s my opportunity to find freedom.”

He returned to his cell and started a new letter.

Long quest for a test

For the past 20 years, Sledge knew his only chance of dying a free man rested on DNA testing.

He wrote more letters. Some were polite and deferential, others more direct and desperate. In a letter to the Innocence Project in New York in 2001, Sledge was emphatic: “Yes sir God knows I’m innocent.”

In total, he filed more than 20 motions, all without a lawyer. Some potential help in 1997 from the Innocence Project ended quickly when John Watters, counsel for the SBI, wrote to a lawyer for the group, saying the SBI had no records and had not been involved in the case.

Actually, the SBI had dispatched agents to help work the case, and multiple reports listed dozens of items of evidence collected for analysis at its crime lab. A lawyer for the state Department of Justice said last week that Watters’ response “appears to have been due to an oversight.”

In 2003, Superior Court Judge William Gore heeded Sledge’s decadelong pursuit of evidence to test for DNA.

Gore ordered the district attorney and all investigating agencies to look to see if they could find any evidence to test. And, if they couldn’t, he wanted an affidavit explaining why.

“There was nothing to be lost by it,” said Gore, now a defense lawyer in Whiteville. “If there was someone innocent, and we could determine it with new technology, I was anxious to do it.”

Gore’s order was ignored. No one responded, not even with an explanation as to why they couldn’t find the evidence.

Gore wrote to Sledge in December 2004, saying none of the agencies had responded.

“As a Superior Court Judge I am not in a position to make any further investigations into your claims,” Gore wrote. “I have acted in good faith and believe the agencies and people I have sent the order to have acted in good faith as well.”

Gore said in an interview that he’s not surprised no one heeded his order.

“We didn’t have a mechanism to follow up,” he said. “I’m not making excuses, but this was not unusual. I’m sure that I ordered many people to do things that they never obliged.”

Rex Gore, district attorney for Brunswick, Columbus and Bladen counties from 1991 until 2011, said he didn’t remember seeing the judge’s order.

He did, however, begin searching for evidence in 2005 when a lawyer at Duke University trying to help Sledge inquired. Rex Gore found a box of evidence in the Columbus County clerk’s office but said evidence kept by the Bladen sheriff’s office, which would have included blood samples from the house, fingerprints and the rape kit, had long since been lost or destroyed.

Rex Gore, who is not related to William Gore, said he’s not surprised the envelope with hair evidence was overlooked.

“The things we see on ‘CSI’ where things are tagged and locked and numbered like a Dewey Decimal System, that’s more movie than reality,” he said.

No ride to Raleigh

Lawyers trying to help Sledge struggled along the way, too. Rex Gore consented to having the evidence found in the clerk’s office tested at the SBI; the judge’s order directed the clerk of court to submit the evidence to the SBI laboratory in Raleigh but didn’t specify how it would get there.

The box remained on the shelf. Two years passed.

Mumma took over the case in 2008 and shepherded a new order specifying that deputies would take the box to Raleigh.

Over the coming years, analysts tried to detect the killer’s DNA on the victims’ clothing. A partial profile – less than a full view of all 23 pairs of chromosomes – was detected on the women’s clothing. It excluded Sledge, but Mumma knew it wasn’t enough. Anyone could have come in contact with the women before they were killed.

She believed Sledge was telling the truth, but she had run out of ways to prove it. So many of the witnesses were dead, so much of the evidence missing.

As Mumma slowly prepared Sledge for a letdown, the clerk called about the hairs. Sledge still has the letter Mumma sent with the news.

“Your entire letter smells like freedom,” Sledge wrote in his reply.

‘I can’t hold a grudge’

Prison has tamed Sledge. All the stubbornness and impulse of his youth have been stripped away.

So has his anger.

While he passed year after year behind bars, Sledge watched Easley’s career flourish, including his two terms as governor. When Easley pleaded guilty in 2010 to a felony involving a campaign finance violation and was stripped of his law license, Sledge found no satisfaction.

“I ain’t nobody to him; I know that,” Sledge said. “I can’t hold a grudge against no man. ... Animosity won’t solve the problem.”

Still, he waits, eager for a trip back to court to undo the jury’s decision.

Mumma received the results from the DNA tests on the hair in December and has urged Jon David, the current district attorney, to help her free Sledge. Although the partial profile on the hairs definitively rules out Sledge, it’s not full enough to compare to the SBI’s DNA database of convicted felons to find whose hair it is.

David has engaged the SBI to help him investigate further.

“I really see us as sharing the goal of making sure this conviction rests on credible and substantial evidence,” David said. “I’m going to go where the truth leads in this matter.”

Little, the Bladen detective, is skeptical of the new information. He said that the informant testimony was so compelling that it would take more than DNA from the hairs to convince him Sledge wasn’t involved.

The Davises’ relatives wait anxiously, too.

“This will really bring up a lot of bad memories for my family,” said Billy Ray Hales, Josephine Davis’ grandson. “If (Sledge) did it, he needs to go out feet first. If he didn’t, I’m mad as hell they didn’t get the right guy in the first place. Somebody has to pay.”

Seeking solitude

At 68, Sledge feels his age.

He sleeps through much of the day, eager to pass it. Sledge tries to keep up his strength and focus by studying his case and corresponding with Mumma.

He doesn’t dwell on questions of what could have been. He’s ambivalent about what his life would have been like if he hadn’t spent it in prison. He shrugs. A wife probably, maybe kids. He would have liked to fix cars for a living.

But if he’s released, he knows exactly how he’ll spend his remaining years.

After decades of sharing showers and meals with strangers, he’s desperate for a life of solitude. He has kept his family at a distance since his conviction, refusing to let them see what he had become in prison: small and caged.

If Sledge is freed, he’ll return to his native Georgia to a plot of land his mother saved for him.

He wants to grow what he eats and let the sun soak his skin. He will keep dogs for company.

He’s eager to spend his last years much like he has the past 34: out of sight and forgotten.

News researchers Brooke Cain and David Raynor contributed.

Locke: 919-829-8927

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