If Joseph Sledge is set free Friday, his family will rejoice over a homecoming that’s 38 years overdue.
The relatives of Josephine and Ailene Davis – the women Sledge was sent to prison for killing – will shudder.
Over the past several years, more and more people have become convinced of Sledge’s innocence. The Davis family, however, has remained resolute.
Sledge could go free on Friday, when three judges will meet to consider his claim of innocence. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission voted unanimously in December that Sledge deserved a shot at exoneration.
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In December, Catherine Brown, granddaughter of Josephine Davis, met with commission members behind closed doors. The transcript of that meeting has been submitted to the judges as part of Sledge’s hearing on Friday.
Brown summed up her family’s sentiments: Sledge is a cold-blooded killer. His lawyer, Christine Mumma, is a manipulator. The forensic evidence unearthed in recent years could not be trusted. The family is furious about reliving the painful memories from the 1976 murders.
Donald Hales, Josephine Davis’ grandson, said in a letter read to commissioners that commissioners were being “bamboozled by Joseph Sledge.”
“Circumstances and opportunity don’t lie,” said Brown, reading Hales’ letter to commissioners. “Make no mistake, Joseph Sledge is a killer of white she-devils. ... Joseph Sledge deserves the criminal environment and should never be among decent white people – excuse me, should never be among decent people again.”
Sledge is black; Josephine and Ailene Davis were white. Racial tensions have pulsed beneath the surface of the case for decades. Though black and white people began to integrate in schools and public places at least a decade before the Davis women were stabbed to death, an unspoken separation between the races lingered far longer in places such as Bladen and Columbus counties.
The Davis women didn’t interact with black men, commissioners were told in December. And, if a black man came to the door, he wouldn’t have been invited inside, relatives have long told investigators.
Keeping their distance
Trial testimony fanned those racial tensions. Two jailhouse informants described Sledge as a racist who believed white women were devils who must be killed. One of those informants has since recanted, saying he was coaxed by investigators to lie at trial.
DNA tests on long-misplaced hairs collected from the crime scene show that the hairs belonged to a black man. The DNA tests rule out Sledge.
The Davis relatives – a dozen or more grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Josephine – don’t buy the DNA test results. Hales, Josephine’s grandson, told commissioners through a letter that “this introduction of ‘CSI’ material and ‘CSI’ drama will not fool me or change my mind.”
The Davis family has kept its distance from reporters. At a three-day hearing in December, the commission chairman ordered journalists not to speak to the victims’ relatives. Reporters huddled in a nearby room, watching the proceedings on a closed-circuit television.
Friday morning in Whiteville, more than 30 people have gathered in a small county commissioners meeting room to await word on whether Sledge will be exonerated.
Other men who have been wrongly convicted were among them. Dwayne Dail and Willie Grimes have spent years adjusting to life after exoneration.
Sledge’s siblings have come from Georgia to greet him after more than three decades apart. They hope to take him home today.
Former Chief Justice Beverly Lake, whose efforts spearheaded the Innocence Inquiry Commission in 2006, sat in the front row to watch the efforts of his legacy agency.
No DNA match
Sledge is 70 now and has spent more than half his life in prison. From the start, Sledge proclaimed his innocence. Mostly, his pleas for help were ignored.
Sledge could become the eighth man exonerated through a unique process established to freshly examine claims of innocence from prisoners with cases long considered hopeless. The Innocence Inquiry Commission examined Sledge’s case for more than a year, building on an investigation by the nonprofit North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.
The two entities interviewed dozens of people, testing memories eroded 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.
In the end, it found what Sledge has insisted for years: There’s no trace of him anywhere in or around the home of murder victims Josephine and Ailene Davis.
Someone else did leave a trace of himself: A smattering of hairs left on the brutalized bodies of the Davis women belong to someone else.
Commissioners tested DNA samples from possible suspects and the relatives of possible suspects. So far, none of those men has proven to be a match.