Prisoner's innocence claim in 1976 double murder case goes before NC commission
Posted December 3, 2014
Updated December 5, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — The eight-member state panel that reviews inmates’ post-conviction claims of innocence is meeting in Raleigh Wednesday for a three-day review of a 1978 double murder conviction of a man who believes DNA evidence clears him of the crimes.
Joseph Sledge, 70, has spent 36 years in prison for the deaths of Josephine Davis, 74, and her daughter Ailene Davis, 53, who were found Sept. 6, 1976, stabbed in their home in Elizabethtown in Bladen County.
Sledge, 32 at the time, had been serving a four-year prison sentence for larceny when he escaped a day or so before the slayings.
He was convicted Aug. 31, 1978, of two counts of second-degree murder based on testimony from two jailhouse informants – one who came forward last year saying investigators provided him with details of the crime that were never publicly released so that he could testify against Sledge.
DNA tests found that hair samples found on at least one of the victims – discovered in 2012 in an envelope on a top shelf in an evidence room – also did not match Sledge.
The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission hearing will determine whether to recommend Sledge’s case to a special judicial panel that would determine if his conviction should be overturned.
Testifying Wednesday morning, one of the lead detectives in the case said a jail inmate, Donnie Lee Sutton, told investigators during at least three interviews that Sledge admitted to killing the Davis women.
But retired Bladen County Chief Deputy Phillip Little said that those interviews were over a course of several months and that Sutton's story changed from an initial interview – during which he said Sledge wasn't involved – to the final three in which he claimed Sledge talked about hating white women and calling them "she-devils" who deserved to die.
Little testified of a similar interview with a second inmate, Herman Baker, who said Sledge – having just escaped from prison and looking for a place to hide – chose what appeared to be an old, abandoned home and killed the women during a struggle when he encountered them inside.
"At the time, I think he was sincere," Little said of Baker. "He gave all indications of being sincere in what he was doing."
Baker, who is expected to testify during this week's hearing, later recanted his testimony, which, according to Little, also included a claim that Sledge sprinkled black pepper at the crime scene "to keep the she-devil's spirits from coming after him."
The General Assembly created the Innocence Commission in 2006 to investigate convictions in which there is evidence that wasn’t presented at a defendant’s trial that supports claims that he or she did not commit the crime in question.
The Commission has reviewed more than 1600 claims of innocence. Of those, 20 cases remain under investigation and seven people have been exonerated.
Most recently was Willie Womble, of Durham, who spent nearly 40 years in prison for the 1975 shooting death of a Granville County man.
In October, a judicial panel declared the 60-year-old innocent of the crime based on information that he was coerced into signing a confession and testimony from a man also convicted of the crime who said Womble had nothing to do with it.