In 1976, Joseph Sledge was 34 years old and in his third year of a four-year prison term at a minimum-security facility for larceny and receiving stolen goods convictions. All of Joseph’s prior convictions were for non-violent, theft-related misdemeanors. On September 5, 1976, Joseph jumped the fence at the prison and headed to Fayetteville.
On September 6, 1976, Josephine and Aileen Davis were murdered in their home in Elizabethtown, North Carolina. They had been beaten and stabbed repeatedly. As the women lived only a few miles from the prison, Joseph was immediately considered the prime suspect.
The crime scene was covered in blood, and the perpetrator dripped and tracked blood between rooms. Two bloody shoeprints were found in the home and a third shoeprint was located outside the home. All three shoeprints were consistent with one another, but did not match the shoes Joseph had been wearing. Law enforcement found latent prints and bloody palm prints at the crime scene, which they determined belonged to the perpetrator. Prior to the trial, the State knew the fingerprints, palm prints, and shoeprints did not come from Joseph.
African-American head and pubic hairs found on the abdomen and imbedded in blood on the forehead of Aileen Davis were collected. The women were white and, according to family members, never had any African-American acquaintances in their home. Thus, the hairs found on Aileen Davis’ body came from the perpetrator.
The Bladen County Sheriff’s Office was under immense pressure to solve the case. By January 1978, no arrests had been made and four additional unsolved homicides haunted the community. Feeling the pressure, investigators turned to jailhouse informants who had been incarcerated with Joseph to confirm their theory of the case.
The primary evidence against Joseph at trial consisted of testimony that the African-American hairs found on Aileen Davis were pubic hairs that were “microscopically consistent” with Joseph’s and the testimony of two jailhouse informants who stated that Joseph confessed to them. Joseph’s first trial, in May 1978, ended in a mistrial after one juror refused to convict. His second trial, in August 1978, ended with convictions for two counts of second-degree murder and a sentence of life in prison.
Between 1980 and 2002, Joseph filed more than twenty-five pro se postconviction motions proclaiming his innocence in state and federal court. In June 2003, when Joseph was 59 years old, his pro se motion requesting DNA testing was granted. After the various State agencies named in the order did not comply, the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence began investigating Joseph’s innocence claim and worked to get the court order enforced.
Although some of the evidence was located and tested in the intervening years after the Center became involved, the most critical physical evidence–the hair evidence used to convict Joseph–was not located until August 2012. Subsequent DNA testing of the nine African-American pubic and head hairs left by the perpetrator excluded Joseph as the source.
In March 2013, Herman Baker, the only surviving jailhouse informant and the key witness for the State at Joseph’s trial, recanted his trial testimony in its entirety. Baker admitted that Joseph never spoke to him about the murders and that prison officials and law enforcement gave him the information to which he testified in court. In exchange for his testimony in 1978, Baker received a $3,000 reward and avoided punishment for possessing drugs inside the prison. The second jailhouse informant, Donnie Sutton, received $2,000 and an early release from an unrelated murder conviction in exchange for his testimony. He died in 1991.
On March 26, 2013, the Center filed a postconviction motion for appropriate relief on Joseph’s behalf which outlined the proof of his innocence. In April 2013, the State filed a response, which made it clear that the State would not give unbiased consideration of the evidence of innocence. For example, although the hairs collected from Aileen’s body were the only piece of physical evidence introduced against Joseph at trial and figured prominently in the State’s prosecution, now that DNA testing excluded him as their source, the State dismissed them as “all but inconsequential.” Although the initial autopsy report and other law enforcement reports indicated that one victim had been raped, the State dismissed the rape as “unsupported conjecture.” Although there was proof that the two jailhouse informants who testified against Joseph had been paid reward money for doing so, the State denied there was any promise to pay them that money when they testified. Although at the time of trial, the State failed to disclose inconsistent statements by one of the informants that cast doubt on the truthfulness of his testimony against Joseph, the State’s position was that the applicable law at the time of Joseph’s trial did not require that disclosure. The State also denied the truth of Baker’s sworn recantation, despite the other evidence of Joseph’s innocence that made his recantation credible and his trial testimony implausible.
Knowing the full extent of the State’s biased opposition to Joseph’s innocence claim, the Center had renewed concerns about whether all of the evidence and information in the State’s possession related to Joseph’s case had actually been diligently searched for, located, and disclosed, as previously represented to the Court. The Center knew that the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is independently empowered to go into law enforcement agencies, courthouses, and other government offices throughout the State to search for case-related documents and physical evidence. Although Joseph was approaching 70 years old and had spent over 35 years in prison for murders he did not commit, he was willing to extend his wrongful incarceration in favor of the opportunity to be declared factually innocent through the Commission process. The Center referred his case to the Commission in May 2013.
Commission staff exercised their search authority and found case-related documents and physical evidence associated with Joseph’s case in the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, the Columbus County Clerk’s Office, the Brunswick County District Attorney’s Office, and the Columbus County District Attorney’s Office.
In 2014, fingerprint and palm print analysis performed prior to trial was confirmed through analysis by fingerprint expert Marty Ludas, and again excluded Joseph as the source of the latent prints found at the crime scene. Most notably, this included two bloody palm prints found on the floor on either side of Aileen Davis’ head, which were never disclosed to the defense prior to trial.
On January 23, 2015, the Center represented Joseph at a three-judge panel hearing where his conviction was overturned and he was unanimously declared innocent.
Joseph never gave up hope that the truth would one day be revealed. Although he will never fully adjust to freedom after 37 years of wrongful incarceration, he finds some solace in the fact that his case will provide the needed impetus for important reform.