Key witness in Sledge case recants, saying investigators pushed him to lie

Joseph Sledge, photographed in February  at Pamlico Correctional Institution, has served 34 years in prison for killings he says he didn't commit. A jailhouse informant now says he lied at Sledge's 1978 trial.
Joseph Sledge, photographed in February at Pamlico Correctional Institution, has served 34 years in prison for killings he says he didn't commit. A jailhouse informant now says he lied at Sledge's 1978 trial.

Editors note: Joseph Sledge has spent half his life trying to convince North Carolina court officials that he is innocent of the 1976 Bladen County murders of a mother and daughter. He hopes the recent DNA test on some long-lost hair will soon lead to his release.

Explore this interactive timeline of Joseph Sledge's ordeal that includes audio of Sledge and the SBI report from the 1976 murders.

Two jailhouse informants sealed Joseph Sledge’s fate in 1978, offering a jury an elaborate story of a satanic-crazed Sledge stabbing to death a Bladen County mother and daughter.

One of those informants, Herman Baker, now says he lied, lured to testify with threats of arrest and promises of reward money and early parole.

“Law enforcement fed me all the details of the crime to which I testified,” Baker said in an affidavit filed Tuesday in Columbus County.

The shift in Baker’s testimony is the latest development in an unraveling case against Sledge, who has spent half his life – 34 years – in prison for murders he says he didn’t commit.

The News & Observer reported on Sledge’s odyssey March 17, examining how for 20 years Sledge pleaded with the courts to test evidence in his case. In August, clerks found a long-misplaced envelope containing hair that investigators at the time believed the killer left behind.

DNA tests on those hairs in December showed that they did not belong to Sledge, boosting his case that he did not kill Josephine and Ailene Davis in rural Bladen County in southeastern North Carolina.

Christine Mumma, Sledge’s attorney and director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, filed a motion Tuesday asking a judge to release Sledge, overturn his conviction and dismiss all charges from the 1976 murders. District Attorney Jon David has engaged the State Bureau of Investigation for help in re-examining the case. The new evidence “now completely undermines any confidence in Mr. Sledge’s conviction and irrefutably establishes his innocence,” Mumma wrote.

Sledge’s case highlights the types of missteps in North Carolina cases that courts have struggled to fix over the past 30 years. When Sledge was convicted, prosecutors didn’t have to share all their files with defense counsel. At the time, SBI lab analysts testified evidence was covered with blood when they hadn’t done the tests to prove it, and jurors didn’t always hear about the deals that informants struck with investigators in exchange for their testimony.

In her motion, Mumma asked the judge to order a full investigation into all cases involving informant testimony handled by the officers who handled Sledge’s case: former SBI agent Henry Poole and former Bladen County sheriff’s detective Phillip Little. Fabricating evidence to deceive a jury could amount to felony obstruction of justice.

Poole said Tuesday that Baker’s allegations are false.

“That’s an absolute untruth,” said Poole, who retired from the SBI in 1993.

The key testimony

Herman Baker Jr. provided the most damning testimony against Sledge at his 1978 trial. Baker painted the jury a picture of Sledge as a racist who brutalized an elderly white woman and her grown daughter after escaping from a nearby prison. He told jurors Sledge believed white women were “she devils” who ought to be killed to protect black people.

At trial, Baker offered two details that investigators had never publicly released. Baker said Sledge hit one of the women in the jaw; an autopsy showed that Josephine Davis’ jaw had been broken.

Baker provided jurors another vital tidbit: Sledge confessed to sprinkling black pepper around the bloody scene and out the back of the house to keep the women’s spirits from following him.

Bladen County sheriff’s detective Phillip Little retrieved a can of black pepper from the house after interviewing Baker in February 1978, more than 18 months after the killings. Little submitted the pepper can at trial to validate Baker’s story.

Baker said in an affidavit that he was pulled out of solitary confinement at White Lake Prison Camp to talk to investigators in February 1978. At the time, he was serving time for a breaking and entering conviction.

Baker told Mumma, Sledge’s attorney, that investigators warned him that he was a suspect in the murders and that if he didn’t cooperate, he’d be charged. They told him about the $5,000 reward for information in the case and told him they would release him from prison early, according to Baker’s affidavit.

Investigators then told him what he needed to know to offer a convincing story, Baker said in the affidavit. Baker’s story was said to be based on a conversation he had with Sledge when they were in prison together in Carthage.

Before Sledge’s August 1978 trial, Baker was released on parole and went to Pennsylvania to be near family. In August 1978, Little and Poole drove north to fetch him for the trial. They put him up in a motel, and paid for his transportation home.

Two months later, the SBI requested that Baker and the other informant, Donnie Sutton, who died in 1991, be given the governor’s $5,000 reward in the case, saying the conviction was due in part to “the testimony of both Baker and Sutton.” In December 1978, Baker collected $3,000, records show.

Little said in an interview this month that neither informant had been promised the reward before the trial.

Two respected investigators

Henry Poole retired from the SBI in the mid-1990s after a respected career solving some of the most complex and haunting homicides in the state. He headed the agency’s cold case unit until his retirement.

Phillip Little logged more than three decades with the Bladen County Sheriff’s Department. He retired last year and has kept close ties to law enforcement, lobbying Congress for laws to help narcotics investigators and helping emergency management responders during local disasters.

When reached by The N&O this month, Little said he was skeptical of Sledge’s claim of innocence.

Little said that DNA evidence wouldn’t be enough to change his mind about Sledge’s guilt. The testimony from the informants, Little said, was convincing and compelling.

In the interview, Little pointed to Baker’s knowledge of the black pepper can and the victim’s broken jaw.

“Only the person who committed the crime would have known about that,” Little said.

Little couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

Mike Easley, then a young assistant district attorney, helped prosecute Sledge in 1978. As the elected district attorney years later, Easley fought Sledge’s attempts to secure a new trial because of the informant testimony.

Easley, who would go on to become attorney general and eventually governor, said in an answer to Sledge’s request for a new trial in 1983 that “no promises” had been made to the informants at Sledge’s trial.

Easley said Tuesday that he couldn’t recall knowing anything about informants being paid. He declined to comment further.

‘Eager to litigate’

Baker and Sutton’s testimony gnawed at Sledge. He didn’t even recall knowing or ever talking to Baker. Sledge wrote letter after letter to judges asking that they reveal any compensation paid to the men.

Sledge, now 68, filed more than 20 motions asking the courts for relief. In 1993, he began asking judges to order DNA tests in his case, certain those results would exonerate him.

Many of his requests went unheeded. Investigators and the district attorney simply didn’t respond to a judge’s order in 2003 to search for evidence and perform DNA tests. His long-awaited wish arrived in August 2012 when clerks found an envelope containing hairs that had been separated from a box of evidence collected during Sledge’s trial.

Scientists analyzed the hairs – both pubic and head hairs left on the exposed bodies of the victims – and concluded they couldn’t have belonged to Sledge.

Mumma has been in talks for months with Jon David, district attorney in Brunswick, Bladen and Columbus counties, about Sledge’s potential release. David has said he would go where the truth led in the case.

On Tuesday, David said he couldn’t comment on the motion. He said in a statement: “I am eager to litigate this case in a courtroom. Public oversight and transparency are vital to ensure a fair process and just result.” A spokeswoman for the SBI declined to comment on the allegations because the case is ongoing.

The motion filed Tuesday puts Sledge’s case in the hands of the court and starts a clock on Sledge’s request for relief. Within two months, a judge will have to schedule an evidentiary hearing or rule on the request to overturn the conviction.

David also has the authority to investigate questions of investigator misconduct or ask for assistance from a special prosecutor.

Poole, the retired SBI agent involved in Sledge’s case, said he would welcome any investigation of his prior work.

“That doesn’t bother me one bit,” Poole said. “They can have their day with it.”

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