District attorney will contest Joseph Sledge’s claim of innocence in 37-year-old murders

mlocke@newsobserver.comMay 6, 2013 

Joseph Sledge must overcome a skeptical district attorney if his murder conviction in the deaths of two women more than 35 years ago is going to be overturned.

Christine Mumma, Sledge’s lawyer and director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, had hoped she and District Attorney Jon David could join forces and ask the courts to undo a double-murder conviction against Sledge for the deaths of Josephine and Ailene Davis, a mother and daughter who lived together in rural Bladen County in Eastern North Carolina.

But David, the district attorney in Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties, wants to litigate. In court filings last week, David said that he’s not convinced that new DNA evidence on long-misplaced hairs from the crime scene proves Sledge’s claim of innocence. David also dismissed the validity of a jailhouse informant’s recent recantation.

“Public oversight and transparency are vital to ensure a fair process and just result,” David said in a statement Monday. “I would caution members of the public to withhold judgment until all the facts are tested in an open courtroom.”

David’s position prompted Mumma to change her strategy. On Monday, she asked the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission to take over and asked the Columbus County judge to halt her initial request to review the case while the commission examines it.

The N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency with the power to subpoena records and witnesses, examines cases with new evidence never heard before a judge or jury. If it finds Sledge’s claim to be valid, the commission will ask a three-judge panel to hold an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Sledge can be exonerated. At that hearing, David could argue against Sledge’s release and offer evidence that would dispute his innocence.

“Joseph Sledge wanted to put his trust in the local justice system,” said Mumma. “Now, after he heard the district attorney’s response, he feels that he can’t.”

Three-decade effort

Sledge is 68 and has spent half his life in prison for the slayings. He is desperate to return to his native Georgia and live his final years in solitude.

Sledge has spent decades trying to convince the courts that he isn’t a murderer. The News & Observer chronicled his journey in a report March 17.

Over three decades, Sledge wrote letter after letter, asking the courts to re-examine every aspect of his case, including whether prosecutors bought the testimony of two jailhouse informants who told jurors Sledge had confessed to the crime. He spent the last 20 years begging the courts to perform DNA tests on evidence from the crime scene.

Last August, clerks in Columbus County found an envelope filled with hairs that investigators collected in 1976 from the bloody scene. Investigators found a smattering of pubic and head hairs on the body of Ailene Davis, 53, whom a medical examiner believed had been sexually assaulted.

Tests performed on those hairs last December show they don’t belong to Sledge.

At trial, a hair analyst from the FBI testified that the hairs belonged to a black man and said they could have come from Sledge.

David, the district attorney, said in his response to Sledge’s request for a dismissal that the hair evidence wasn’t consequential or significant at trial. He also disputes the notion that Ailene Davis was raped.

“The insinuation by the Defendant ... is that the victim(s) was raped and that the hair must have come from the rapist,” David wrote. “This is unsupported conjecture by the Defendant as no pathologist or medical examiner at the time of the crime determined or would state that either of the victims had been raped.”

The case was initially investigated as a rape and murder, but prosecutors didn’t pursue a rape charge.

A medical examiner wrote in a report in 1976 that “the autopsy of Ailene Davis showed evidence that the vagina had been penetrated. The inner walls of the vagina had been lacerated and there was evidence of bleeding around the lacerated area.” The medical examiner said he could not determine what specifically had been used to penetrate Davis; the examiner found no semen. Relatives of Ailene Davis have said she was not sexually active at the time of her death.

A seemingly obvious suspect

Sledge seemed an obvious suspect in the murders of Josephine and Ailene Davis.

Sledge had been serving time for larceny at a nearby prison and had escaped the night before the Davis women were killed.

Still, physical evidence was lacking in the case. Aside from the possibility that the hairs found on Ailene Davis belonged to Sledge, investigators had nothing else – no fingerprints, blood or shoeprints – to tie him to the crime scene.

The state’s case against Sledge relied heavily on the testimony of two jailhouse informants who described Sledge to jurors as a racist who believed white women needed to be eradicated.

Mumma, Sledge’s attorney, tracked down one of the informants in March.

That informant, Herman Baker, signed an affidavit saying that he lied at trial and that investigators and a prison official bought his testimony with the promise of reward money and the threat of arrest if he didn’t cooperate.

Recanted statement questioned

Baker said in an affidavit that investigators fed him the details of the crime to make his testimony plausible. Investigators have denied Baker’s accusations of wrongdoing.

David, the district attorney, said in court records that Baker’s recent statements shifted when he spoke to an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation. David also questions whether Baker, who now lives in Fayetteville, was mentally and physically equipped to offer any sort of recantation, according to his recent court filing.

SBI agents C.L. Barefoot and J.L. Crawford spoke briefly with Baker on March 18. According to notes from that conversation, Baker told Barefoot that Sledge never confessed to murdering the women, though he did recall Sledge saying something about “white devils” and “black pepper.”

The interview was brief because Barefoot believed Baker was too impaired to speak further. Baker is now represented by a lawyer who has asked the district attorney for immunity from perjury charges before sitting for another interview. David has not consented to any immunity arrangement.

David asked a judge last week to order Mumma to turn over a tape recording of her interview with Baker. Monday afternoon, Mumma provided to David a copy of a transcript of the interview.

Locke: 919-829-8927

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