It would be easy to believe, listening to assistant Columbus County District Attorney Lee Bollinger testify at the N.C. State Bar building Wednesday, that when the state was told in 2013 that Joseph Sledge didn’t kill two women in Bladen County in 1976 and rape one of them, the state said oops and immediately “wanted to make sure that an innocent man did not spend a single minute more behind bars than he had to.”
How sweet, especially considering that Sledge had already spent 17,870,400 minutes in prison for the crime of which he was eventually exonerated.
That’s 34 years, if you’re keeping score at home.
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The court hearing is not to determine how justice hammered Sledge, though, but to determine if Christine Mumma, the lawyer who helped free him, violated ethics by removing a water bottle without permission and testing it for possibly exculpatory DNA.
Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, is accused of taking the bottle from the home of the sister of two men she thought could be guilty of the crime. Her herculean heroism got Sledge off, but the pilfered bottle had nothing to do with it.
A gallery of undeservedly respected retired rogues did wrong regarding Sledge, not least of whom was a then-young assistant D.A. named Michael Easley.
You probably know him as Gov. Easley, a status he achieved two decades after putting Sledge away after the first trial ended in a hung jury. Not one of the principals suffered professionally, although if they have a conscience let’s all pray it’s whooping them upside the head nonstop.
It seems like something out of a dystopian, Twilight Zone world that the woman whose efforts rectified a three-decade miscarriage of justice is the only person being held accountable. In a case full of egregious judicial miscarriages, hers is a minor misdeed, at worst.
Sledge says the state “made her” cross the invisible ethical boundary to try to prove his innocence.
In response to a question under oath, Columbus County D.A. Jon David acknowledged that the state’s legal apparatus is designed to prove guilt, not innocence.
Sorry, homes, but in this case, it looks like it was designed to ignore innocence.
Who, I asked Sledge during a break in the daylong hearing, would he prefer seeing on trial rather than the woman who helped free him?
“The state,” he said quickly. “The state needs to be on trial.”
Sledge speaks so softly that you have to place your tape recorder right up next to his mouth to hear what he’s saying, and he’s so slightly built that it’s easy to believe – as he testified in his trial decades ago – that he escaped from White Lake prison camp with just a year remaining on his sentence for theft because the inmate who had beaten him earlier was returning to that prison.
He was on the lam when the Davises were killed.
I’ve shared jail cells over the years, but not for a second was I tempted to share specifics of my case with a stranger who might peddle info to get a better deal for himself. Yet, much of the state’s case against Sledge hung on the testimony of a snitch named Herman Baker to whom, we’re supposed to believe, Sledge incomprehensibly revealed minute details of the crime and crime scene.
Phillip Little, of the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, said he believed Baker because he provided details that only the killer could have known.
Well, Baker said he knew those details because cops gave them to him. They later gave him $3,000 for his testimony, too.