BLADEN COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Joseph Sledge spent 37 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.
He was convicted and later found innocent, in the brutal 1976 murder of Josephine and Aileen Davis. The mother and daughter were stabbed to death during an apparent robbery and sexual assault at their Bladen County home.
Now, for the first time in 40 years, WECT went with Joseph Sledge back to the crime scene that changed his life forever. We're also taking a look at the lawsuit he filed that could cost local authorities millions for their missteps in Sledge's case.
Joseph Sledge was last at the crime scene outside of Elizabethtown in 1976, when detectives took him there. It was a few days after the murders, which happened on the same day Sledge escaped from the White Lake Prison Camp.
He was serving a 4-year sentence for misdemeanor larceny.
"[The detective] said, 'Do you want to get out?' And I said, 'No, sir. I ain't never been in those people's house and I don't want to go in there,'" Sledge recalled of his conversation with the detective who wanted him to get out of the patrol car and walk around the victims' house.
Sledge was suspicious authorities were trying to frame him and didn't want his footprints at a crime scene that, to this day, he swears he had nothing to do with.
"This is certainly a case that shocked the conscience of the community," Bladen County District Attorney Jon David said of the high-profile Sledge case. David was 6 years old and living in Florida at the time of the crime, but inherited the case when he was elected district attorney.
"It generated a tremendous amount of publicity locally. It is all people were talking about. And so I can well imagine that there was a considerable amount of pressure for those in the law enforcement community to solve this case," David said of what his predecessors were likely up against when investigating the double murder.
In researching this story, we came across pictures from the 1976 crime scene. The images of the victims, 74-year-old Josephine Davis and her 53-year-old daughter Aileen, are too horrifying to publish.
"Both victims had been brutally assaulted and beaten. Both of them had their dresses pulled up above of their waist. And there was blood on the clothing and blood on their legs. Aileen, the younger victim, had indications of sexual assault," said Chris Mumma, the attorney who ultimately got Sledge exonerated in 2015.
At the time of the murders, prison officials at White Lake Prison Camp were having a particularly difficult time controlling their inmates.
More than a dozen inmates had escaped from the prison in 1976, and Sledge picked a very unfortunate day to attempt an escape of his own.
"That's a mistake I'll have to regret as long as I live," Sledge said at the grounds of the former prison camp, returning there with WECT for the first time since the '70s when he was there as an inmate.
"I jumped that fence right there… That's what made me the prime suspect because me being in the area when the crime occurred."
Sledge hid until nightfall, stole a car, and then drove to Dillon, South Carolina.
When authorities caught him a few days later, they were already trying to make their case against Sledge as the culprit of the double homicide.
But as the investigation continued, the facts didn't fit. The bloody shoe prints at the murder scene didn't belong to Sledge. There was African American head hair on the victim's naked torso, even though Sledge kept his head shaved - and that's not all.
"They had 2 bloody palm prints on either side of Aileen's head, in a very distinctive position over someone's body, that would indicate it was from the rape, and those palm prints, in blood did not match the victims, and did not match Joseph Sledge, and that was known when he was convicted," Mumma said of the red flags that she believes should have informed detectives Sledge was not the guy.
"I know that they knew I had nothing to do with this," Sledge said of his feeling that detectives made the choice to pursue him for murder anyway.
The facts that didn't fit are the reason why Sledge's first trial for the murders resulted in a hung jury.
But the pressure for a conviction persisted.
When the case was tried for the second time, rising star and future North Carolina Governor Mike Easley was chosen as lead prosecutor.
He fought hard on a very particular piece of evidence. Strands of pubic hair that he told jurors, belonged to Sledge.
"At the time an FBI analyst testified using then hair comparison testimony that there was a match between Joseph Sledge's hair and that recovered from the victim's body," Jon David said of the only piece of physical evidence that seemed to point to Sledge.
The science in the 1970s is no comparison to what we have today. That type of hair analysis is now considered junk science.
But there was a second punch from prosecutors that likely put some members of the jury over the top.
Testimony from two jailhouse snitches who were paid to tell the jury that Joseph Sledge confessed to the murders.
Herman Baker was a fellow inmate of Joseph Sledge after his arrest following the murders.
Mumma says Baker had run into trouble behind bars and was in solitary confinement for having drugs in prison.
Prosecutors, looking for someone to testify against Sledge, gave Baker an enticing option.
"He was going to be doing the state a favor by testifying falsely against Joseph Sledge, and making sure that he was put away, and in return for his favor to the state, his charges of having drugs in prison would be dropped," Mumma explained of the deal Baker cut with authorities.
A second informant, Donald Sutton, had 20 years shaved off his own murder sentence shortly after he testified that Sledge confessed to the murders.
While it's legal to cut someone a deal for cooperating, Mumma says feeding someone information and then paying them for their testimony is not.
Still, she says that's exactly what happened to make the case against Sledge.
"Herman Baker was given $3,000 in cash, which in 1978 was not small bucks. It's equivalent to about $21,000 today. Donald Sutton was paid $2,000 for his statement. The fact that they were paid was never given to the state. We actually found the cancelled checks," Mumma said.
The cash transaction is also disturbing to District Attorney Jon David.
"I'm not going to Monday morning quarterback what the prosecutors did in the late 70s, but I will tell you, relying on the jailhouse snitches is a bad idea," he said.
Donald Sutton died years ago.
It took until 2014 for Herman Baker's conscience to get the better of him. That's when he took the stand before the North Carolina Innocence Commission to explain why he lied about Sledge all those years ago.
"What did you say about the murder?" Mumma asked Herman Baker on the witness stand.
"What I was told to say," Baker responded, further explaining that a guard and the warden at the prison camp directed him to testify against Sledge, even telling him what to say.
Two convicted criminals who were paid to testify. Those were the star witnesses in August 1978, in a trial that cost Sledge the next 37 years of his life.
"They know I didn't do it, they just put the pressure and say you did what you didn't do," Sledge said of his outrage that he believes authorities framed him for two murders he didn't commit. "They gonna live with that until they die."
While Sledge and Mumma believe strongly that authorities made a conscious decision to frame Sledge for the murders even after they knew he was innocent, Jon David is skeptical.
"Prosecutors have an ethical obligation not just to secure convictions but to ensure that the people who are convicted are actually guilty. The worst thing that a prosecutor can ever experience is that an innocent person is sent away. And think about why that is so bad. Not only does it erode public confidence in the system and make closure for the victim's family a sham, but it also subjects the community to the actual killer," David reasoned.
Fast forward 16 years that Joseph Sledge spends locked in a cell.
In 1993, Sledge got wind of new DNA technology, and had a renewed hope that he can prove what he's claiming all along.
Sledge began writing letter after letter to judges, clerks, and others in the judicial system, begging them to test the pubic hairs and other physical evidence left at the crime scene to prove his innocence.
But he had little success.
"They don't have any intention to solve cases once they got them convicted," Sledge says of the reason no one seemed to care about his pleas for help.
Although the murders happened in Bladen County, immense pretrial publicity prompted Sledge's trial to be moved to Columbus County. Evidence used to convict him was stored in this closet at the Columbus Clerk of Court's office.
His handwritten letters became very familiar to courthouse officials there, but it wasn't until 2003 – nearly 30 years after the murders and a decade after Sledge began asking for DNA testing – that one of those letters convinced Columbus County Judge William Gore to grant Sledge's request.
But even that huge break was not enough.
"That judge orders this DNA testing. That order gets put into a file and given to the DA's office and nobody does anything. [Sledge is] never appointed counsel, the DNA testing is never pursued," Mumma said of how the system let Sledge down once again.
Several more years passed and Sledge spent his 60th birthday in prison.
Finally, in 2006, after another plea to look for the evidence, then District Attorney Rex Gore found the box from Sledge's case in the Columbus County Courthouse evidence room. But the envelope with the hair from the crime scene that helped seal Sledge's conviction was missing.
"Because of the age of the case the evidence simply couldn't be found," Jon David said, explaining why authorities signed affidavits that the evidence being sought in Sledge's case had either been lost or destroyed.
Sledge's quest for freedom almost ended there.
"We really were out of options in his case," Mumma said of coming close to giving up after further requests for Bladen and Columbus officials to find evidence from the case were unsuccessful. "His file was sitting on the floor next to my desk and I kept looking at it and knowing that I needed to write him a letter saying I didn't know what else to do. And then that phone call came in at that time."
In 2012, a clerk in the Columbus County Courthouse up on a ladder dusting in the evidence room found the missing envelope in the Sledge case, and she called Mumma with the good news.
Mumma says that find blew the case wide open.
North Carolina Innocence Commission takes Sledge's Case
The North Carolina Innocence Commission - an independent agency created by the state - agreed to review Sledge's case after the missing hair samples were found.
The commission sent crews to the SBI and Bladen County Sheriff's office, where investigators found evidence from Sledge's case the agencies had sworn was lost or destroyed.
Mumma says their oversight cost Sledge another 10 years of his freedom.
"They found files that we were told didn't exist. They found fingerprints that we were told didn't exist. They found palm prints that we were told didn't exist," Mumma recalled of all the evidence that turned up when those independent investigators did a thorough search.
The newly discovered evidence and the recanted testimony from Baker, the surviving jailhouse snitch, were enough for the Innocence Commission to grant Sledge a hearing in January 2015.
The very hairs that helped convict Sledge 37 years earlier, now helped prove his innocence. DNA experts testified that the pubic hairs found at the crime scene did not match Sledge after all.
Jon David told the Innocence Commission that human error was to blame for Sledge's wrongful conviction, and apologized to Sledge on behalf of the state.
The Innocence Commission proceeded to release Sledge immediately as a free man, at the age of 70.
While he can now enjoy the remaining years of his life outside of a prison cell, Joseph Sledge would like some answers and assurances that the mistakes that cost him decades in prison have been fixed and that another person won't find themselves in the same predicament.
Sledge is currently suing the detectives, sheriffs, and clerks whose missteps cost him so dearly, and Bladen County is paying to defend that suit. Attorneys think the case could go to trial as soon as this fall.
"There are a lot of incidents of people failing to do their job, honestly, In Joseph's case," Mumma says of the grounds for the suit.
While she handled the Sledge's criminal exoneration, a separate firm, Patterson Harkavy, is handling his civil lawsuit.
That firm has successfully sued other agencies for wrongful incarceration. Just last year, they obtained a $3.25 million settlement for Willie Grimes, who spent 24 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of rape and kidnapping in Catawba County.
The evidence management issues do not appear to be isolated to Sledge's case, raising further concern about how our system keeps track of critical evidence - evidence that could eventually help solve other cold cases or be used to exonerate other innocent inmates.
Chris Mumma says lax evidence management is a problem across the state but described what Innocence Commission investigators found in Bladen County as "exceptionally bad."
According to the pending lawsuit, Innocence inquiry investigators searching the Bladen County Sheriff's evidence room in August of 2013 and found shoe prints and bloody palm prints from the 1976 crime scene, in envelopes mailed by the SBI that the sheriff's department had never even bothered to open - the very evidence Bladen County officials swore no longer existed.
They also found several evidence lockers that were padlocked, but no one at the Sheriff Office had keys to open the locks.
Those locks were cut off at the request of the Innocence Commission investigators, and inside they found the evidence they were looking for.
The Innocence Commission also documented that other parts of the Bladen evidence warehousing system had no climate control, jeopardizing the integrity of the evidence.
According to the lawsuit, investigators notified then-Sheriff Prentis Benston of numerous deficiencies in his evidence management system, including "a pervasive practice of failing to inventory evidence, improperly storing biological evidence, disregarding requests to locate evidence and responding inaccurately to inquiries about the presence of evidence."
"The battles - and I mean battles - of trying to get justice for [Sledge] after the evidence that proved his innocence was available, just highlights the problems of the post-conviction process," Mumma said of why overriding problems still need to be addressed even though Sledge is free.
Because of the pending lawsuit, current Bladen County Sheriff Jim McVicker, who was not elected until 2014 and is not named in the lawsuit, declined our request to view their evidence room now. But District Attorney Jon David said McVicker has made significant improvements.
"He is actually using a very sophisticated bar coding system now," David explained. "It's all centralized into one location. In Bladen County they are currently building a new jail, and a big aspect of that is going to be a new evidence storage facility."
Other innocent inmates
These improvements should help track evidence moving forward, but what about the fates of other inmates who may just as innocent as Joseph Sledge?
There are more than 37,000 inmates in the North Carolina state prison system, and Chris Mumma says that conservatively, at least 1 percent of them are innocent.
Jon David agrees that there are almost certainly other innocent inmates in the state's prisons.
"The criminal justice system is a human system, and because it's human system mistakes will be made," David explained.
It's a system where you are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but the wrongly convicted, like Joseph Sledge, find themselves forced to prove their innocence, with no post-conviction rights to access the evidence used to convict them.
"They didn't do the crime, but they can't find evidence to prove it," Sledge says of the conundrum.
Mumma's firm, the North Carolina Center on Actual innocence, has helped eight wrongfully convicted inmates obtain their freedom, as they weed through the letters and calls from hundreds of other inmates begging for help each year.
"Being in prison for something you didn't do, people have no concept of how different that is than being in prison for something you did do. You can understand when you commit a crime… as horrible as it is to be in prison, you understand why you are there. For someone who is innocent, it is this constant question of, 'Why did this happen to me? And what did I do to deserve this?' And the loss and the grief, psychologically, emotionally, physically, is immeasurable," Mumma explained.
Prosecutors like Jon David are also inundated with claims of innocence.
"When I get those letters, it's very difficult to wade through credible claims of innocence," David said.
It's difficult in part because prosecutors are busy handling the never-ending flow of new criminal cases.
Fielding claims of innocence is also problematic because these cases have been reviewed, and the verdicts decided by a jury.
But evidence of innocent people sitting in prison is compelling enough that state lawmakers established the Innocence Inquiry Commission in 2006 to investigate credible claims of innocence like Joseph Sledge's.
Mumma says it's a step in the right direction, but believes prosecutors across the state still resist efforts to overturn convictions, even when the evidence to prove innocence is there.
Joseph Sledge will be 73 years old in June. He jokes that he feels more like 110.
"Being in prison - it takes a lot out of you…it takes so much out of you. Being separated from your loved ones and all out of that," he said.
Both of his parents and some of his siblings died while he was in prison. Sledge never had the chance to marry or have children of his own. But despite all he lost, he is looking forward and not back, and says he's not angry.
"Why should I be? I mean, thank God, I'm free."
Sledge agreed to drive from his childhood home in Georgia back to Bladen County, in hopes that hearing his story might help someone else.
"I just got by chance, by the grace of God, got lucky. I just got fortunate. And if Ms. Mumma hadn't come along, I'd have been in jail for the rest of my life," Sledge said.
Lifelong friend Lorenzo Hudson drove Sledge to North Carolina for this interview. He's grateful Sledge finally won his freedom, but the pain of what was lost back in 1978 is palpable.
"At that time, we poor. We ain't got nobody…. Joe got them charges, he had to go do the time, he had nothing to fight with," Hudson said wiping a tear from his eye. "Just to see him free. That's about all we can ask for."
Chris Mumma says Sledge's case is a wake-up call to re-examine our criminal justice system.
"He was discardable. He was a poor black man who had been in prison for something minor. But that didn't matter, he could be discarded to close this case," Mumma said of the broken system. "For the longest time I wanted to believe that this was just because investigations were done differently then and this was just a mistake. But in Joseph's case, I absolutely believe they knew he was innocent when they convicted him."
While the civil case against some of the authorities involved in Sledge's wrongful conviction is expected to go to trial later this year, Mike Easley, whose aggressive prosecution of Joseph Sledge cost him his freedom, and District Attorney Rex Gore, who for years ignored a judge's order to find and test the DNA evidence in this case, are immune from prosecution.
The real killer has never been caught.