John Drescher

Drescher: In Sledge case, judge dropped the ball

Joseph Sledge, photographed at Pamlico Correctional Institution in Bayboro, N.C. Thursday, February 28, 2013.
Joseph Sledge, photographed at Pamlico Correctional Institution in Bayboro, N.C. Thursday, February 28, 2013.

Inmate Joseph Sledge posed a question in 2004 to Superior Court Judge Bill Gore about an order Gore had issued. If only Gore had answered it.

Sledge has been in prison since 1978. He was convicted of murdering a mother and her adult daughter in their home in Bladen County in southeastern North Carolina.

There was little physical evidence to tie Sledge to the crime but hairs were found on the women’s bodies. Sledge was convicted largely on testimony from two jailhouse informants who later were paid reward money.

DNA testing was not widely available during the era of Sledge’s trial. About 20 years ago, Sledge heard about DNA testing and requested that the physical evidence in his case be tested.

For 10 years, Sledge got nowhere. But then in June 2003, Judge Gore, to his credit, directed the prosecutor and the investigating agencies to locate the evidence and have it tested. “...If said evidence cannot be located each agency is to submit an affidavit to this court explaining why the evidence cannot be found,” Gore wrote.

And then: Nothing.

Gore didn’t give the agencies a deadline. That’s Management 101. If you have the authority and you want to get something done, you issue an order and give a deadline. You circle the date on your calendar. If you are a Superior Court judge, you direct the agencies to meet you or another judge in court that day. If you are a judge and you don’t give a deadline and follow through, you aren’t serving justice. There’s a reason you issued that order, right?

And, by the way, if you don’t follow up and no one responds, you’re being played. You’re supposed to be in charge, not letting others run your court.

Without a deadline, no one acted. Maybe Gore forgot. But Sledge didn’t. He had plenty of time to think. He wrote Gore about the lack of activity in his case.

Gore responded in December 2004 that there was nothing more he could do. “Unless there is some reason to believe that Law Enforcement Officials, Prosecutors or other witnesses are willfully disobeying this court’s order to produce the evidence you have sought I will not take any further action in this matter,” he wrote.

But there clearly was reason to believe his order had been willfully disobeyed: After 18 months, no one had filed the affidavit Gore had ordered. Yet Gore seemed unconcerned that his order had been ignored – unconcerned for Sledge, unconcerned for the disregard of his own judicial authority.

“I’m not making excuses but this was not unusual,” Gore recently told The News & Observer’s Mandy Locke. “I’m sure I ordered many people to do things they never obliged.”

Similar case, different judge

Sledge had not been to college or law school, as Gore had. But Sledge’s thinking, unlike Gore’s, was precise and clear. After he received Gore’s letter, Sledge wrote the judge and asked the right question: “I ask you sir, has either the SBI or the FBI complied with providing the affidavit your order directs the ‘agencies’ to provide?”

There’s no indication in the courthouse file that Gore responded.

Gore was a well-regarded judge. But in the Sledge case, he failed to get the job done.

There was plenty more Gore could have done. At about the same time Gore issued his 2003 order, the Darryl Hunt case was unfolding on the other side of the state. Hunt was convicted of the 1984 murder of a Winston-Salem journalist who also had been sexually assaulted. In April 2003, a Superior Court judge ordered DNA testing of the evidence in Hunt’s case and ordered all potential DNA evidence be retained. That order was similar to Gore’s.

But the judge in the Hunt case followed up. It took seven months and the threat of a contempt citation to get the SBI to act, the Winston-Salem Journal reported. But the judge’s order was carried out. The evidence was tested. It pointed to another man, who confessed. Hunt was cleared.

Silence from Gore

Gore is no longer a judge and practices law in Whiteville. He was DMV commissioner in the last two years of Gov. Mike Easley’s administration. (In an odd quirk, Easley, as a young prosecutor, tried the Sledge case.) Reached Friday, Gore declined to comment.

In the Sledge case, Locke recently reported that clerks in August found a misplaced envelope containing hair from the man who was believed to have committed the crime. DNA tests show those hairs are not Sledge’s.

Locke reported this week that a key jailhouse informant now says he lied. Sledge’s attorney, Christine Mumma of Durham, found the informant in Fayetteville and got his statement. She has filed a motion asking a judge to release Sledge.

It’s up to the courts to decide if Sledge is innocent. But he is 68 years old and has been in prison for 34 years. The clock is running. Sledge deserves a hearing on the new DNA evidence that has emerged.

That hearing should have been held many years ago.