Editor’s Note: Since publication, the N&O has learned that passages from this story were taken in large part or in whole from “Conviction for 1976 double murder to get judicial review after innocence inquiry” by WRAL. This is a violation of our standards. We apologize to our readers.
Joseph Sledge, who spent nearly four decades in prison for two murders for which he was wrongfully convicted, has settled a lawsuit against the Bladen County sheriff’s office for $4 million.
The agreement was outlined in documents filed Monday in federal court.
Other lawsuits filed by Sledge against the State Bureau of Investigation and the Columbus County clerk of court’s office are pending in the state court system.
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“For years, Joseph Sledge begged the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, the SBI, and the Columbus County Clerk’s Office to release the evidence that would prove his innocence,” Burton Craige, a Raleigh attorney representing Sledge, said after the federal lawsuit was dismissed on Monday in the wake of the $4 million agreement. “For years they refused, defying four court orders.
“Finally, in January 2015, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Chris Mumma, the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, and the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, Mr. Sledge was exonerated and released, having spent 37 years in prison for crimes he did not commit.”
Sledge, now 72 and living in Ocilla, Ga., was freed from prison and declared innocent through a process unique to North Carolina.
In 2014, the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission voted to send the Sledge case for judicial review after Christine Mumma, the director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, recommended the case to the state agency charged with investigating post-conviction claims of innocence.
Almost 36 years had passed since Sledge was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder when the Innocence Commission issued a finding in December 2014 that sufficient evidence existed to show that Sledge had not killed Josephine Davis, 74, and her daughter Ailene Davis, 53, in their Bladen County home.
At the time of the crimes in September 1976, Sledge had been serving a four-year sentence at a prison work farm for larceny when he escaped a day before the slayings. Testimony from two fellow prisoners and the escape were key to the prosecutor’s case that led to the 1978 verdicts.
But one of the inmates later recanted his testimony and DNA testing on hairs found at the crime scene decades after the trial was over showed the hairs were not Sledge’s. DNA testing had advanced since the 1970s, when the results showed only that the hairs were from a black male.
On January 25, 2015, Sledge was declared “factually innocent” by a panel of three North Carolina superior court judges, and was released from prison.
While in prison, Sledge filed more than 25 motions in court without the assistance of a lawyer, trying to get the verdicts overturned.
In 2003, Sledge requested that DNA testing be done on the hairs and other evidence from the case. Some of the evidence had gone missing, according to the Innocence Inquiry Commission testimony, and it was not until 2012 that it resurfaced and was tested.
The Center on Actual Innocence also contended that prosecutors had withheld crucial evidence from the jury that Sledge could have used to bolster his claims of innocence.
In addition to the Bladen County sheriff, Sledge sued the Columbus County clerk and SBI for withholding or failing to find DNA evidence that would have exonerated him much earlier.
The $4 million will go into a trust set up by attorneys for Sledge, Craige said.
“With this settlement, Bladen County has taken responsibility,” Craige said in the statement released Monday. “Now the SBI and the Columbus County Clerk’s Office need to do the same.”