Testimony: Key witness 'fed details' before '78 double-murder trial
Posted December 3, 2014
Updated December 4, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — The state's key witness in the 1978 trial of a North Carolina prison escapee found guilty of killing a 74-year-old mother and her 53-year-old daughter was "fed details" of the crimes by officials at the prison, witnesses testified Wednesday before a state panel reviewing the double second-degree murder conviction.
"(They told me) to say that Joe Sledge talked to me about doing a murder," Herman Lee Baker, 64, told the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission.
Joseph Sledge, 70, has spent 36 years in prison for the Sept. 6, 1976, stabbing deaths of Ailene Davis and her mother, Josephine Davis, in their Bladen County home. At the time, a 32-year-old Sledge had escaped a day earlier from a nearby prison work farm, where he had been serving a four-year sentence for larceny.
Investigators testified Wednesday that they trailed Sledge's escape route in the direction of the Elizabethtown home – a couple miles from the prison.
He was one of several suspects, retired Bladen County Chief Deputy Phillip Little said, but couldn't be ruled out as the perpetrator – primarily because of the timing and opportunity.
There was no solid evidence linking Sledge to the crime except two prison inmates, including Baker, who crossed paths with Sledge for about three months in 1977.
Baker told investigators and ultimately testified at two trials – the first ended in a mistrial – that Sledge said he was looking for a place to hide, chose what appeared to be an old, abandoned home and killed the women – the victims were white – during a struggle when they startled him.
"At the time, I think he was sincere," Little said of Baker. "He gave all indications of being sincere in what he was doing."
Little went on to testify before the Innocence Commission that Baker said Sledge, a racist who hated white women, sprinkled black pepper at the back door of the home "to keep the she-devils' spirits from coming after him."
But in March 2013, Baker recanted his testimony, according to Christine Mumma – Sledge's attorney and the executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.
"'They fed me everything,'" Mumma recalled Baker saying – a response she said he gave spontaneously once he realized who she was after she approached him on a street in the town he lives.
He later swore in an affidavit that prison guards told him about the pepper at the crime scene as well as information that one of the victims suffered a broken jaw from the attack.
"I was in the hole for possession of marijuana and heroin," a nervous Baker testified Wednesday. "They came and talked to me and took me to the warden's office and told me they'd give me a deal (if I said Sledge admitted to the crime). … They would drop the (drug) charges."
Sledge, however, never admitted to the crime, he said.
"I was scared. I didn't know what to think. I was scared. I didn't know what would happen to me," Baker said of his decision to testify. "I wish I never did it."
Neither Baker nor investigators with the Innocence Commission could say, however, why the prison warden – now deceased – might have wanted one of his prisoners to be implicated in the crimes or why he offered an incentive for another inmate to lie.
Another critical discovery that prompted a re-examination of Sledge's conviction has to do with a hair sample found on at least one of the victims.
It was reportedly discovered in an envelope in 2012 by a clerk cleaning the top of a shelf in an evidence room.
The most sophisticated FBI testing in the 1970s could only determine the hair was from a black male. When it was retested nearly four decades later, DNA analysis found it didn't match Sledge.
Investigators with the Innocence Commission collected DNA samples from numerous people who were initially cleared as suspects, the Innocence Commission's associate counsel, Lindsey Guice Smith, told commissioners late Wednesday afternoon.
DNA experts will share the results of analyses on those samples Thursday, when the Innocence Commission panel reconvenes.
Sledge will also testify either Thursday or Friday before commissioners begin deliberating whether to recommend his case to a special three-judge panel, the only body with the authority to exonerate Sledge.
The General Assembly created the Innocence Commission in 2006 to investigate convictions in which there is evidence that wasn’t presented at trial but supports a defendant's 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.