BLADEN COUNTY — As Joseph Sledge pleaded for his freedom this year, sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors said whatever evidence they had from the 1976 double murder Sledge swore he didn’t do had been lost or destroyed.
In August, stored in lockers in the Bladen County Sheriff’s office, investigators with the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission found boxes and notebooks full of evidence that could be Sledge’s ticket out of prison, his lawyers say.
The recovered evidence is the latest development in a fight for the freedom of Sledge, a 69-year-old Army veteran who has been in prison more than half his life. The News & Observer chronicled Sledge’s journey in a story March 17.
The discoveries by innocence commission investigators included evidence bolstering Sledge’s insistence that he did not kill Josephine and Aileen Davis, a mother and daughter who lived together in the rural southeastern North Carolina community of Elizabethtown. Among the information found in the sheriff’s gun vault: details about an alternate suspect never provided to Sledge’s original attorney as well as dozens of hand, finger and shoe prints left behind by the women’s killer, according to a motion filed in the case this week.
Over the years, investigators at the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office and the local district attorney’s office said the evidence from Sledge’s case had been lost or destroyed. Sometimes, in the face of requests or court orders to search for the evidence, they simply said and produced nothing. As recently as this spring, District Attorney Jon David asked several SBI agents to search again for any evidence from his case. They came up empty.
David said in an email Wednesday that he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the motion filed by Sledge’s attorney but that he believes “that everyone involved in the investigation is committed to going wherever the truth leads.” David said he was pleased with the efforts of the Innocence Inquiry Commission and the SBI and feels confident that justice will be served.
Christine Mumma, Sledge’s attorney and director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, detailed new developments in Sledge’s case in a motion filed this week in Columbus County, the county just south of Bladen where Sledge’s trial was held in 1978. Mumma had asked David earlier this year to join in an effort to free Sledge. He declined and, in court filings, indicated he wasn’t convinced that the new evidence found last year signaled Sledge’s innocence. In May, Mumma asked the Innocence Inquiry Commission to get involved.
The commission, created in 2006 to investigate claims of innocence, has the authority to conduct its own search for evidence in local police departments. In August, that power paid off.
Shortly before commission investigators were scheduled to inspect the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, deputies there uncovered some of Sledge’s materials in a box labeled “Jail” and “Closed Out Cases Investigated by P. Little.” Phillip Little, who retired in 2010, investigated the Davis women’s killings in 1976; in recent years, Mumma said she spoke often with Little about searching for anything his office may have from Sledge’s case. Little could not be reached Wednesday.
In August, associate director of the commission Sharon Stellato found more items in secured lockers inside the sheriff’s gun vault, including several letters Sledge sent detective Little, begging him to search for physical evidence from his case. In the same folder was a 2003 order from then Superior Court Judge William Gore ordering DNA testing in Sledge’s case, along with a note from Gore’s assistant telling Little to let her know anything he learns about evidence from the case. Little never responded to Gore’s office, and Gore took it as a sign no evidence existed and let the matter drop.
Stellato also found shoe prints and finger and palm prints from the crime scene along with a piece of flooring from the victims’ house. In another box, Stellato found the women’s clothing that had been tested by a private laboratory several years ago at Mumma’s request after the court clerk found the items in her evidence room. Mumma said deputies told her in recent years that the items were missing.
Two notebooks with detectives’ handwritten notes found in the gun vault offer a new glimpse into what investigators knew in the days and months following the murders. Investigators mentioned an alternate suspect, a neighbor with a shaky alibi and shoe prints outside his home that look similar to a set of bloody prints found near the battered body of Ailene Davis. Investigators also mention bloody palm prints found on either side of Ailene Davis’ body. Mumma contended in her motion that investigators likely compared the prints to Sledge and determined they didn’t match.
Reuben Moore, Sledge’s original defense attorney, filed an affidavit in court this week saying he never received any information about this alternate suspect or the bloody palm prints beside Ailene Davis’ head. Moore, now retired, said that had he known about this evidence, his strategy at trial would have been different and could have yielded a different verdict. Defendants have a constitutional right to any evidence favorable to them.
During the commission’s search, they found drugs and cash Bladen deputies should have disposed of long ago. The Bladen County sheriff did not return a call for comment Wednesday; the SBI declined to comment on the specifics of the investigation.
No physical evidence links Sledge to the murder of Josephine and Ailene Davis. His conviction largely hinged on hairs DNA tests show aren’t his and testimony offered by jailhouse informants. One of those is dead. The other, Herman Baker, recanted his statement this year, saying he was fed information by investigators and a prison warden and offered reward money in exchange for his damning testimony against Sledge.
The first boost to Sledge’s claim of innocence arrived last year when clerks in Columbus County discovered a long-misplaced envelop full of hairs pulled from the exposed bodies of Josephine and Ailene Davis. At trial, an analyst from the Federal Bureau of Investigation told jurors the hairs belonged to a black man and that they appeared consistent with Sledge’s pubic hair. A medical examiner found evidence that Ailene had been sexually assaulted.
DNA tests performed by a private lab last December prove the hairs don’t belong to Sledge. Further testing since the Innocence Inquiry Commission began investigating his case this summer show that two other hairs found on the women’s bodies that the FBI determined to be Caucasian in 1976 are actually a DNA match to the previously tested black hairs. None belong to Sledge or the victims.
Through the years, Sledge wrote letter after letter proclaiming his innocence and asking investigators, prosecutors and judges to review his conviction. Initially, he asked investigators to look into whether the jailhouse informants had been rewarded for their testimony. Later, in 1993, as DNA testing started to be used in criminal investigations, Sledge made his first request of the courts to test evidence from his case.
Sledge’s fate is in the hands of the Innocence Inquiry Commission. Once investigators there complete their investigation, they can convene a hearing on his case. If the eight-member panel determines there is enough evidence of innocence to merit further review, three judges will be called upon to hold a hearing to decide whether Sledge is innocent. Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, executive director of the commission, said she couldn’t comment on the status of its investigation.
Sledge is slight and compact at age 69. He has survived 35 years as a convicted killer by holding out hope that someone would eventually believe him.
Sledge has spent most every day second-guessing the poor decisions he made the night the Davis women were murdered. He was serving time for receiving stolen goods at a nearby minimum security prison in Bladen County in 1976. He escaped one night after a beef with another inmate.
That same night, someone broke into the Davis home in Elizabethtown and brutally stabbed the women. It was too obvious a lead to ignore: within a few miles of each other, a prisoner escaped and two women were murdered. Sledge was convicted in 1978.
If he’s freed, Sledge will retreat to his native Georgia to a plot of land his family has saved for him. He wants to wake and sleep as he pleases and eat what he can grow in a garden. For now, he waits.