Crowd gathers under tight security for Joseph Sledge innocence hearing

Joseph Sledge arrives at the Dempsey B. Herring Court House Annex in Whiteville, N.C., Friday, Jan. 23, 2015, as a three-judge panel convenes to take up Sledge's claim of innocence.  Sledge, 70, has been proclaiming his innocence for more than three decades for a 1976 double murder.
Joseph Sledge arrives at the Dempsey B. Herring Court House Annex in Whiteville, N.C., Friday, Jan. 23, 2015, as a three-judge panel convenes to take up Sledge's claim of innocence. Sledge, 70, has been proclaiming his innocence for more than three decades for a 1976 double murder.

More than 30 people gathered Friday morning in a small county commissioners meeting room in Columbus County to await word on whether Joseph Sledge will be exonerated of a brutal double murder nearly 40 years ago.

Sledge, 70, was convicted in 1978 of killing Josephine and Ailene Davis in a rural area of Bladen County. Testimony at the time, since discredited, said he bragged of the killings in prison.

Yet Sledge, throughout his 36 years in prison, has insisted he is innocent, and he has fought an often-lonely fight to get someone in the court system to pay attention. For decades, no one did.

But that day appears to have come. Sledge, his lawyers and other onlookers are sitting through technical testimony involving DNA evidence that shows it was not Sledge who left hairs on the women’s bodies.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a first-of-its-kind agency, has sifted through the evidence in the case, found reason for exoneration and referred the case to a three-judge panel that is now hearing the case in Whiteville.

In the gathering crowd are other men who have been wrongly convicted in North Carolina courts. 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 state Supreme Court 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.

Security was on high alert. More than a dozen sheriff's deputies filled the county building where Sledge awaits his fate.

Sledge sat without shackles beside his attorneys. Wearing a white button-up shirt and dress slacks, Sledge leaned forward to listen to Christine Mumma, his attorney, argue for his release.

The judges are hearing from Rita Batchelor, an assistant clerk of court, who helped discover the long forgotten hairs in 2012 in the clerk's storage office. DNA tests on those hairs help support Sledge's claim of innocence. The hairs were collected from the victims bodies after the slayings.

While organizing the clerk's storage vault in late 2012, a clerk climbed onto a ladder and surveyed the top shelf. Lying flat in an envelope were the hairs; Sledge's name was scribbled on the outside.

“She was literally having to reach way back and pull. It was not visible,” Batchelor said, explaining why they had not noticed the envelope with hair evidence for so many years.

The clerks knew Sledge’s name well. He had written dozens of letters to the court over the years asking for help overturning his conviction. Batchelor called Christine Mumma, an attorney who for years had been seeking any evidence that remained in Sledge's case.

Victims’ family is angry

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 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.

In December, Catherine Brown, granddaughter of Josephine Davis, met with members of the Innocence Inquiry Commission 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, 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.

No DNA match

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.

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