The Case Of Joseph Sledge, Behind Bars For 36 Years With A Shaky Conviction, Is Why We Need Innocence Commissions

An African-American man who has spent more than half of his life in a North Carolina prison, Joseph Sledge, will get his long-awaited chance to plead his innocence this week. Sledge will appeal to the Innocence Commission, committed to rooting out miscarriages of justice in the NC criminal justice system. Sledge’s case echoes the concerns that led North Carolina to establish its Innocence Commission in 2006 — withheld and misplaced evidence, coerced informant testimony and years of dead-end appeals.

If the eight-person panel finds that Sledge’s case deserves another look, a panel of three judges will be charged with reviewing the crumbling record against him and decide whether to exonerate him of the murder charges.

Sledge’s predicament could just be a story of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. After a scuffle with a fellow inmate, the then-32 year-old Sledge escaped from a minor security prison in 1976 where he was serving time for receiving stolen goods and larceny. The same night, two white women were stabbed to death in nearby Elizabethtown; Bladen County Sheriff John Allen told reporters that the killings of Josephine and Ailene Davis were the most gruesome murders he'd seen in 30 years on the job.

With a prisoner on the loose, law enforcement made the connection between the bodies and Sledge almost immediately. When they tracked him down, Sledge denied any involvement or knowledge of the killings. Still, the prosecutor didn’t charge Sledge for over a year.

Larry W. Smith/Getty Images News/Getty Images

As the small community becoming increasingly agitated over the sheriff's inability to pin down a killer, pressure mounted on the police to wrap up the case, according to Mumma and Sledge.

In turn, the police began to offer monetary rewards to any of Sledge’s fellow inmates who could testify against him. Two came forward and alleged that Sledge had confessed to them what he had done. In 1978, Sledge was indicted, tried, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Christine Mumma, Sledge’s current attorney, thinks that the police and prosecutors cherry-picked and framed the evidence to nail Sledge to close the case on a racially charged situation.

They think they're framing the guilty guy, so it's OK, Mumma said. Framing the guy they think is guilty is not OK because sometimes they're innocent.

In the more than 30 years since, Sledge has continued to protest his innocence. He's written letter upon letter pleading his case, asking for DNA testing on any evidence from the crime scene, requesting that the courts look into what deals the police cut with the two witnesses who testified against him. The News & Observer noted that his appeals filled four file folders in the Columbus County clerk’s office.

Most of his appeals went ignored; in one instance in 2003, a court did order that the police submit evidence from his case to DNA testing, but the order was for all extents and purposes ignored. When Sledge’s attorney requested that law enforcement produce any physical evidence and notebooks they had from the investigation, the department told him that they had destroyed or gotten rid of the boxes awhile ago.

Without the North Carolina Innocence Commission, Sledge might still be writing unanswered letters. The first of its kind nationwide, the eight-member board is charged with reviewing hundreds of murder convictions for instances of police and prosecutorial misconduct. Thus far, the commission has pored through more than 1,600 innocence claims and exonerated four inmates. Another inmate gained his freedom after the district attorney agreed with the commission’s findings and didn’t contest the panel’s recommendation of release.

But the Innocence Commission doesn’t just have the power to hear and review new evidence — it also has the power to demand and search evidence from police. In Sledge’s case, that might have made all the difference. Shortly before the commission’s investigators were to arrive at the Bladen County Sheriff’s office in 2013 to go through the evidence lockers, deputies found a couple of boxes that contained handprints, footprints and black hairs recovered from the crime scene.

Neither the handprints nor the footprints matched Sledge. When the hairs were sent to labs for DNA processing, they also did not match. Later, the investigators would find notebooks that demonstrated that the police had an alternative suspect after the crime that they did not pursue – evidence that they did not disclose to Sledge’s defense attorney at the time.

Without physical evidence to tie Sledge to the murders, his case stands only on the testimony of the two jail informants who claimed to hear him confess. One such informant, who was paroled 12 years into a minimum 28-year sentence and collected $2,000 from the police in reward money for his testimony, has died. The other, Herman Baker, accepted $3,000. He recanted his testimony in a sworn affidavit to Mumma in 2013:

My testimony was not truthful. Joseph Sledge never told me he murdered anyone, the affidavit said. Although Joseph Sledge did not admit to committing any such crimes, I testified that he did because of promises of financial reward made to me by law enforcement.

The current district attorney for Bladen, Columbus and Brunswick counties, Jon David, remains unconvinced that this newly uncovered evidence demonstrates Sledge is innocent. According to The News & Observer, he'll continue to seek Sledge’s imprisonment for the deaths.

Nigel Treblin/Getty Images News/Getty Images

From a layperson’s perspective, the evidence against North Carolina’s criminal justice apparatus in this instance is hard to ignore. Not only did the police and prosecutors at the time manipulate evidence and bribe fellow inmates to turn against Sledge in hopes of closing the case, but the justice system has been anything but responsive to Sledge’s attempts to plead his innocence in the decades afterwards.

To spend 36 years behind bars, away from your family and loved ones, for a crime that you did not commit is a travesty of justice. Given the more than 250 post-conviction exonerations in the United States since 2000, we should be alarmed at the methods that law enforcement and prosecutors deploy to convince us of a person’s guilt. And we should be clamoring for more institutions like the North Carolina Innocence Commission that view the criminal justice system for what it is — a system run by flawed, all too human individuals.

North Carolina’s Innocence Commission should not be the exception, but the rule when it comes to how we as a society think about policing and punishing wrongdoers.

If Sledge is found innocent, he will be the longest-serving inmate later released and proved innocent in North Carolina. When asked what he would do if restored back to the free world after spending more than three decades behind bars, Sledge said that he would go back to his home state of Georgia to farm.

Images: Getty Images (3)