The N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission ruled Friday that there is sufficient evidence to ask a three-judge panel to decide if Joseph Sledge should be freed after spending more than half his life behind bars for a Bladen County double murder.
Sledge, 70, was sentenced to life in prison for fatally stabbing Josephine Davis and her daughter Aileen Davis after escaping from the White Lake prison in 1976.
During his testimony, Sledge said he had no involvement in the murders. He testified that a sheriff's deputy told him authorities were trying to pin the case on him because the trail was getting cold.
Sledge said the inmates who testified against him at trial fabricated their stories to get reward money.
The commission is made up of eight members: a superior court judge, a prosecuting attorney, a criminal defense attorney, a sheriff, a victims' rights advocate, a member of the public and two additional discretionary appointments.
According to state law, N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin has 20 days to appoint the three-judge panel that will deny Sledge's claim or dismiss his charges.
Jon David is district attorney in Columbus County, where Sledge's trial was held. David said he learned a lot about the case sitting in the audience during the three-day hearing.
"Based on what I heard, I believe a substantial question exists which calls into question the sanctity of the evidence used to convict Mr. Sledge," he said.
David said he will meet in the coming days with representatives from the SBI, Innocence Inquiry Commission, Bladen County Sheriff's Office and the victims' family.
"I don't think I could ever be happy about this case," Sledge's Attorney Christine Mumma said after the decision. "It will remain an incredibly sad and disturbing history..."