Joseph Sledge looked out across Lake Waccamaw on Friday afternoon, shivering against a cold January rain and trying to embrace an unfamiliar feeling: normal.
Sledge walked out of jail Friday for the first time in 36 years without the burden of handcuffs and shackles.
He is finally free. The state had been wrong about him in 1978, and in all the years since; he is no killer. At 70, he will begin again.
“I’m full up on freedom,” Sledge said shyly, leaning over a menu at Dale’s Seafood, a lakeside restaurant in rural Columbus County.
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Sledge is the eighth man freed through a unique process that forces the state to deal with prisoners’ claims of innocence. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, created in 2006, examined Sledge’s innocence claim over the last 18 months, and in December, it voted that his case merited a possible exoneration.
On Friday afternoon, a trio of judges did just that. Jon David, the Columbus County district attorney, made their decision swift and easy; David told judges he had become convinced that Sledge was innocent.
As Superior Court Judge Tom Lock announced Sledge’s exoneration, a dozen photographers and reporters rushed toward Sledge and his attorneys. Sledge smiled slightly as his attorneys, Christine Mumma and Cheryl Sullivan of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, pulled him close. Applause erupted.
Sledge never meant to be this guy. As a young man, he had imagined returning to Georgia after a brief stint in the Army. He would live quietly in the country. He thought he might work on cars for a living. Maybe he would find someone to marry.
Instead, a bad decision sent him on a lifelong detour. He stole some T-shirts from a department store in the early 1970s. A judge sentenced him to four years in a prison camp in rural Eastern North Carolina. In 1976, with just a year left in his sentence, he escaped from the White Lake Prison Camp one night after a beef with another inmate.
That very night, not 5 miles away, someone brutally murdered Josephine and Ailene Davis, a mother and daughter, who lived together in rural Bladen County.
That horrible coincidence set the course for Sledge’s life.
Dozens of mistakes
Sledge’s exoneration is bittersweet. It comes after dozens of mistakes and casual dismissals of his pleas for help.
David, the district attorney, ticked through the justice system’s blind spots in Sledge’s case. The system wasn’t what it is now, he said. No DNA testing was available. The best it had – microscopic hair comparison – could only determine that Sledge’s pubic hair was consistent with pieces left on one victim’s exposed torso. Sledge’s escape and the wild testimony of two jailhouse informants made it all seem too obvious during the 1978 trial, which had been moved to Columbus County.
David said Friday that he regretted the system’s weaknesses and any part that court officials played in it.
“There’s nothing we regret more to our values as prosecutors than to believe an innocent person is in prison,” David said. He offered Sledge an apology.
Mumma, who first encountered Sledge’s case a decade ago, has had a hard time swallowing all of the ways the criminal justice system failed Sledge – and the amount of time it took to make it right.
Clues that should have sent investigators to other suspects were disregarded. None of the nearly 100 fingerprints taken from the crime scene matched Sledge’s. Investigators also collected head hairs from the victims’ bodies, but Sledge had always shaved his bare.
During two decades, Sledge sent dozens of letters to judges, police officials and prosecutors asking that they find and test evidence from his case for DNA. Yet it took nearly 20 years for a clerk to find hairs that would prove his innocence.
By happenstance, a Columbus County clerk climbed a ladder in late 2012 while cleaning the evidence vault; she found an envelope flat on the top shelf with the missing hairs. The clerks had been ordered to search for that evidence as far back as 2003.
High on a shelf
Without the state’s new apparatus for testing innocence claims, Sledge might have remained in prison. The Center on Actual Innocence and the Innocence Inquiry Commission interviewed dozens of people, testing memories that had faded over decades.
Commission staff discovered crime scene evidence and investigators’ notes that local sheriff’s deputies had said for years had been lost or destroyed. The commission spent $60,000 on forensic testing.
Mumma expressed her frustration with all the years Sledge lost while those hairs lay undetected in the courthouse.
“I understand the shelf was high, but there was a ladder,” she said after the hearing.
Sledge displayed no anger Friday. He flashed between giddiness and disbelief. The state now must pay him $750,000 for the 36 years he spent in prison, but his emotions weren’t gushing because of the money.
He stared at Lake Waccamaw and ate oyster stew. He met his nephew, Maurice Sledge, for the first time. He embraced his long-lost sister, Barbara Kinlaw, and brother, Oscar Sledge, and couldn’t get over how they would drop everything and come get him after all these years. While he was in prison, he had asked them not to visit.
He talked of fishing and football and sleeping in a real bed. His new normal sounded just right.