Joseph Sledge is free, 36 years late

Joseph Sledge, who lost more than half his life to prison for a crime he did not commit, owes his freedom to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission and a lawyer named Christine Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.

The commission, established in 2006, has the power to investigate claims of innocence by prisoners. Mumma has fought before the commission successfully to free several inmates wrongly convicted, and Joseph Sledge is the latest.

Sledge was serving a four-year sentence on a theft conviction when he broke out of a prison camp in Eastern North Carolina in 1976. In what would be a horrendous coincidence for him and a tragedy for a family, two women, a mother and daughter, were killed in Bladen County on the night of his escape. They lived only five miles from the prison.

Sledge was convicted, claiming his innocence for all the years thereafter. By happenstance, a Columbus County clerk found missing evidence from the case in 2012. Mumma and her colleagues did the rest, and last Friday, with the support of the current district attorney in Columbus County, a three-judge panel exonerated Sledge, and he was set free.

Amazingly, he did not seem angry, and he was sympathetic to the family of the victims, a family now seeking a solution to the crime. The investigation has been reopened.

"I'm full up on freedom," the 70-year-old Sledge said over a lunch at a seafood restaurant. He will collect $750,000 from the state, which is hardly adequate compensation for what he endured.

The exoneration of Joseph Sledge is a triumph for him and for the Center on Actual Innocence, but it is a reminder that the criminal justice system is not perfect. And that, in turn, is another strong argument against North Carolina's death penalty. What if that penalty had been applied to Joseph Sledge?