Local News

Joseph Sledge declared innocent in 1976 double murder

Posted January 23, 2015
Updated February 4, 2015

— A man who spent nearly four decades behind bars was freed from prison Friday after a three-judge panel found him innocent in the 1976 stabbing deaths of a Bladen County mother and her adult daughter.

Last month, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission recommended the case of Joseph Sledge for judicial review after newly discovered evidence cast doubt on whether he had anything to do with the killings of Josephine Davis, 74, and Ailene Davis, 53, in their Elizabethtown home.

About an hour after the judges' ruling – and after 37 years in prison – Sledge, 70, walked out of the Columbus County jail in Whiteville into the arms of family.

"I just thank God to be alive and thank the (North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence) and the Innocence Commission for sticking by this case and making it really happen," Sledge said.

His next stop: Supper with his family and his attorney 23 miles away at Dale's Seafood in Lake Waccamaw. He ordered oyster stew and looked at family photos on an iPhone while he waited for his meal.

On Saturday, he'll return with his family home to Savannah, Ga.

"There's no question in my mind that part of justice was served today with his release," said Christine Mumma, Sledge's attorney and executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence. "It's a tragedy for him to be released after 37 years, at 70-years-old."

District Attorney Jon David, who was not the original prosecutor in the case, told the judges Friday that he believed in Sledge's innocence and credited the work of the Innocence Commission for unearthing an "injustice" in the conviction.

David also apologized to Sledge.

"There's nothing worse for a prosecutor than convicting an innocent person," he said. "The 'sorry' is imperfect to convey the magnitude of what happened with respect to this man's life."

David pledged to reopen the investigation into the Davis slayings, but the victims' family, unconvinced of Sledge's innocence, expressed disappointment that he would go free.

"We, the family, are heartbroken by this decision," Josephine Davis' granddaughter, Katherine Brown, read from a prepared statement. "District Attorney Jon David states that he will be reopening this case, and we, the remaining family members, are shocked by this change."

Sledge then took the stand.

"I'm very, very sorry for your loss," he said. "I hope you get closure in this matter."

At the time of the crimes, a 32-year-old Sledge had been serving a four-year sentence at a prison work farm for larceny when he escaped a day before the slayings. That factored into his conviction, as well as key testimony from two fellow prisoners who said Sledge admitted to the killing the victims when he encountered them while looking for a place to hide after his escape.

One of the inmates recanted his testimony and told the Innocence Commission that he lied in exchange for leniency for a drug violation. The other inmate died in 1991.

Recent DNA testing on hairs found at the crime scene also shows that they could not have been Sledge's, an expert testified Friday. Testing in the 1970s could only determine that they were from a black male.

In 2003, a judge ordered the hair samples turned over for DNA testing, but it took years of searching before they were found in an envelope on a top shelf in an evidence room in Bladen County.

Sledge is the eighth person exonerated because of the North Carolina Innocence Commission, the only state-run investigative agency of its kind.

The General Assembly created the panel in 2006 to look at post-convictions claims in cases where new evidence supports a defendant's claims that he or she is innocent of a crime.

Since 2007, the commission has reviewed nearly 1500 claims of innocence.

The nonprofit Innocence Project says there have been 325 post-conviction DNA exonerations in U.S. history.


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  • 678devilish Jan 26, 2015

    They should never depend on anything an inmate has to say. They will lie and do anything to get out when they absolutely should be kept locked up. Prosecutors knows this but go after the inmate or snitch any way. Will they ever learn? I doubt it.

  • 678devilish Jan 26, 2015

    How many more innocent men/women are sitting in prison that should be free? I am very thankful we even have a Truthful Committee. They are doing their job when the judge, jury and the courts failed. Thank you for finding the evidence that free this gentlemen. I wish him the best. God bless him for the rest of his life.

  • AnonyMouseLOL Jan 24, 2015

    Despite all, the victims' family members are disappointed he's released. Why? EVERYTHING now has pointed to his evidence. You should want thei REAL killer caught, not just anyone tossed it jail to make up for the deaths of your loved ones. That's not justice, not for them, not for you and certainly not for an innocent man.

  • NotLiberal Jan 24, 2015

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    Well, very few are sociopaths as officers are required to undergo psychological exams prior to employment. There may be some that were employed before the requirement.

    I don't understand the thought process of people who think officers pick out and frame innocent people. It takes much more work and effort to do that than to properly investigate a case or to simply close the case without arrest. Secondly, law enforcement cannot even get a case in front of a judge or grand jury, much less to trial without the District Attorney's approval and without the DA preparing the case for trial. Keep in mind that in NC the DA has absolute authority to dismiss any case he/she feels like dismissing.

    As for your blanket statement about police being criminals if you have proof I suggest you take it to the District Attorney, Attorney General, SBI or the Chief/Sheriff for investigation.

  • recontwice Jan 24, 2015

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    The other part of that equation is that many of your police are criminals and sociopaths who have just as little credibility!

  • NotLiberal Jan 24, 2015

    View quoted thread

    So was he lying then or now or then? What do you expect a career criminal and sociopath to do, take responsibility for his crimes?

  • moomoo Jan 24, 2015

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    "almost the Deep South" is the wording used .

  • moomoo Jan 24, 2015

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    Ok--and just as many believe he is innocent--based on facts that were not presented 38 years ago.

  • Pensive01 Jan 24, 2015

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    The only evidence that was presented to the jury at the original trial was the testimony of the two jailhouse "snitches" and the fact he had escaped from prison. The physical evidence that was turned up last August, from which the hair sample came from and also included hand prints, foot prints and...wait for it...fingerprints, was never used at the original trial. Given all that I'll take the findings of the three judges over the original jury decision, easily. The sad and disturbing thing is just how many people are so willing to disregard the physical evidence and complain about the ruling by the three judges.

  • Pensive01 Jan 24, 2015

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    Well all the physical evidence, which came to light last August and was never used at the trial 40 years ago, clearly indicated it was not him.