WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Joseph Sledge, the man who spent 37 years in prison for a double murder in Bladen County he did not commit, has moved another step closer to victory in his case against the state. The North Carolina Industrial Commission just ruled against two state agencies that were trying to have Sledge’s claims against them dismissed.
In 2017, Sledge received a $4 million settlement from Bladen County for its role in wrongfully convicting him in the 1976 murder of Josephine and Aileen Davis at their home outside of Elizabethtown. Among other things, investigators withheld evidence that would have cast doubt on Sledge’s involvement in the crime. The state also paid two jailhouse informants to falsely testify against Sledge at trial.
What Sledge is attempting to get justice for now is the state’s negligence in processing his request for DNA testing that could have proved his innocence after he was convicted. Sledge began requesting DNA testing of the evidence used against him in 1993, around the time that technology became available. He continued to make those requests for the next 20 years. Sledge’s requests were ignored in some cases, but even after a judge got on board, ordering the DNA testing, nothing happened.
It wasn’t until 2012, when a clerk in the Columbus County Courthouse was dusting in the evidence room, that she found the envelope that contained the forensic evidence that had been used to convict Sledge. The state had claimed for years that evidence had been lost or destroyed. Investigators later found additional evidence that was favorable to Sledge at the SBI headquarters in Raleigh.
Because of the failure of the Columbus County Clerk of Courts (which is governed by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts) and the State Bureau of Investigation to find and test the evidence in question that ultimately proved his innocence, Sledge remained in jail for another 15 years. Sledge’s attorneys argue that is a separate matter than the initial wrongful conviction.
The State Bureau of Investigation and the Administrative Office of the Courts have argued to have this claim against them dismissed, based on claims of sovereign immunity, and because the state has already paid Sledge $750,0000, the maximum amount allowed by state law to compensate people who have been wrongfully convicted.
This month, the Industrial Commission disagreed with the State’s position that they are immune from further liability.
“[T]he Full Commission determines that Plaintiff has sufficiently stated claims for negligence upon which relief may be granted,” the Commission wrote in their decision. “Plaintiff should receive the opportunity to move forward and present evidence in support of his allegations of negligence.”
WECT will continue to follow this story and keep you updated when the case proceeds.