Barry Saunders

Saunders: One day, law will answer for flaws

While prosecution witnesses on the stand parsed their words so that they could talk without violating the oath under which they were testifying – but also avoid telling the possibly incriminating whole truth – Dwayne Dail got up and left for a restroom break.

I corralled him when he came out.

Why, I asked him, are you here voluntarily inside a court proceeding on a beautiful, sunny January day for a hearing that has nothing to do with you?

He was there, he said, to support Christine Mumma, director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence. Mumma, unlike the evidence-ignoring, corner-cutting cops and prosecutors who seem to keep sending innocent people to prison, was being persecuted – uh, prosecuted – for being too diligent in her effort to prove her client’s innocence: she took a water bottle from a home without permission and had it tested for DNA.

“I feel like I can sit here and know what’s going on,” Dail said.

To an extent that blessedly few – but far too many – can, he does.

Like Joseph Sledge, Dail was sentenced to two life sentences, plus 18 years, for the rape of a 12-year-old girl. Just as in Sledge’s case, there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, but there was evidence that would’ve proved he had no connection.

He was told, as was Sledge, that DNA evidence in his case had been lost or destroyed.

Dail has said he wrote letters seeking help to “governors, senators, Dear Abby, Oprah.” One of his written pleas reached the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence and Christine Mumma. Dail was exonerated a day after a supposedly lost nightgown belonging to the victim was discovered and DNA’ed. He had served 18 years in hell.

“Chris is someone who knows how important it is to find the real perpetrator in these cases. It’s nice to know, as in my case, that there’s one less rapist and child killer on the street. That’s because of Chris Mumma. He’ll never get another chance... that’s important for society. That’s very important for me that I was exonerated, but they found the right guy.”

The man who raped the 12-year-old girl was already in prison. The DNA discovered on the supposedly lost nightgown ensured that he won’t get out.

In the case of Josephine Davis and her daughter, Ailene, justice has not been served. The man who in 1976 murdered them, who raped Ailene Davis, may still be out there preying on others – probably because Sledge was a convenient scapegoat.

As one would expect of a man who’s already had two decades of his life taken from him, Dail is fearless in expressing outrage at what he sees as another judicial travesty. “The inquiry commission and the D.A. were actually in bed together to gang up on Chris,” he said. “That was their focus, not to investigate Joseph Sledge’s case... In this case, Chris was almost forced to try to solve the case, because they weren’t interested.”

Sledge said the same thing when I spoke with him an hour later, during a break in the hearing.

“She knew I was innocent even without the water bottle. They made her” take what the bar now considers unethical steps to prove his innocence, Sledge said. “They forced her hand,” he said “‘Find the perpetrator.’ It was her obligation to do their work.”

That Mumma did their work better than they is probably why she stood accused of the ethical violation. She ended up receiving a written admonition, the mildest rebuke possible.

In last week’s column on Mumma’s hearing, I noted that Columbus County D.A. Jon David tried to excuse the injustice done Sledge by saying the state’s legal apparatus is designed to prove guilt, not innocence.

That sucks, but couldn’t the apparatus just wave at innocence, stop and have a chat with it, if it passes it on the street?

None of the principals involved in taking Sledge’s freedom for 37 years – representing the SBI, Bladen County Sheriff’s Department, the superior court judge – responded to my calls. Can’t blame ’em. One day, though, since there’s a higher power than newspaper columnists and reporters, they will receive a call they’ll have to answer for the night the lights went out on justice in North Carolina.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, bsaunders@newsobserver.com, @BarrySaunders9

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