Three decades worth of Joseph Sledge’s hope and despair will be unpacked this week before a commission that could help turn his claims of innocence into freedom.
This week, the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission will begin examining whether the courts made a horrible mistake when convicting Sledge in 1978 of the brutal slaying of a mother and daughter from rural Eastern North Carolina. Sledge, 70, has spent more than half his life in prison. During that time, he has begged for someone to hear his contention that he’s innocent.
Sledge gets his chance this week before a pioneering state commission established in 2006 to examine such claims. Eight members of the commission will hear evidence, and if they agree Sledge’s claim merits further review, a panel of three judges will be tasked with determining whether he should be freed and exonerated.
Sledge seemed an obvious suspect in 1976. He escaped from an Elizabethtown prison one night after a beef with another inmate; that same night, not 5 miles away, mother and daughter Josephine and Ailene Davis were stabbed to death.
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Slowly, over the last two years, the evidence that initially led jurors to convict Sledge has unraveled. His case captures several of the types of mistakes that legislators and advocates have tried for years to eliminate from the criminal justice system.
Key evidence hidden away in shelves and storage lockers was found in the last two years, after local investigators said it had been discarded. Part of those files included evidence about another possible suspect; Sledge’s trial attorney said he didn’t receive that information before trial. The only physical evidence suggesting Sledge had anything to do with the homicides ‑ pubic hair left on the exposed abdomen of one of the women – belongs to someone else, DNA tests showed in 2012.
Among those expected to testify this week is a man whose testimony helped seal Sledge’s fate.
Herman Baker, a jailhouse informant, is now recanting the statements he made before a jury in 1978. He has said in statements submitted to the court that he was pressured by a prison official and detectives to make the damning statements against Sledge or face charges himself. Baker was released on parole before Sledge’s trial, court records show. After a jury convicted Sledge, Baker was paid a $3,000 reward for his help convicting Sledge.
Reforming the courts
This week’s commission hearing will do for Sledge what he tried mightily to do for nearly 40 years: force the courts to listen. Sledge’s pleas for help fill four files in the Columbus County clerk’s office. Over the years, he filed 20 motions on his own, begging the courts to reconsider his case.
In 1993, as DNA testing started to become standard in criminal investigations, Sledge began pleading with judges, investigators and prosecutors to test the physical evidence, court records show. A judge’s 2003 order granting DNA testing to any evidence that might still exist was simply ignored.
Sledge’s case, like so many of the recent exonerations of the state’s oldest prisoners, highlights the weaknesses that have undermined the courts. Convictions from the 1970s, 80s and 90s rested heavily on shaky witness testimony and uncertain forensic science. Criminal defense attorneys often worked without knowledge of key evidence.
For years, legislators and advocates have worked for reforms aimed at preventing the courts from jailing the innocent. In felony cases, prosecutors must now share their evidence with defense attorneys before trial. Any promises made to witnesses must be disclosed to jurors. Key evidence must be preserved for years, not discarded like trash when evidence rooms get too cluttered.
The state’s most ambitious reform was the creation of the Innocence Inquiry Commission. The state agency has the power to search for and test evidence. When the commission believes an inquiry is warranted, it can set in motion an examination resulting in a prisoner’s freedom.
DA will fight
Since 2007, the commission has reviewed more than 1,600 claims of innocence. Four inmates have been exonerated through the commissioner’s two-step process. Another was exonerated after a district attorney agreed with the commission’s findings and didn’t contest the inmate’s release before a three-judge panel.
Earlier this year, two other long-time inmates were also freed after prosecutors joined with defense attorneys to overturn convictions when evidence of innocence emerged.
Christine Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, has handled Sledge’s latest journey through the courts. She initially turned to Columbus County District Attorney Jon David to help free Sledge, but when David indicated he would fight Sledge’s claim of innocence, Mumma asked the Innocence Inquiry Commission to handle the case.
If the eight-member panel agrees that evidence presented in Sledge’s case this week warrants further review, three judges will be asked to conduct a hearing and examine his case further. At that hearing, David could argue against Sledge’s claims of innocence.
Sledge, imprisoned in Pamlico County, is expected to testify later this week.