Joseph Sledge’s timing could not have been worse. While serving a four-year sentence for stealing t-shirts in 1976, the 36-year-old man from Georgia escaped from a prison work farm in eastern North Carolina. That same day, Josephine Davis and her daughter Ailene were brutally murdered in their farmhouse in nearby Bladen County. Sledge immediately became the prime suspect and was charged with their murders upon his re-capture.
The case against Sledge was weak. None of the fingerprints at the scene matched his own. The only physical evidence linking him to the crime was pubic hair “of Negroid origin” found on one victim’s body. An FBI microscopic analysis said they resembled Sledge’s hairs, but cautioned that this did not “constitute a basis for positive personal identification.” No eyewitnesses to the crime could be found, but two jailhouse informants testified that Sledge had confessed to killing two white “she-devils” to them. Sledge, who always maintained his innocence, received a life sentence in 1978.
His lawyers from the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence tried to fight the conviction, but struggled with delays in the appeals courts. In 2012, a county clerk discovered a envelope containing hairs from the crime scene that had been deemed missing. A private lab tested mitochondrial DNA samples from the hairs and ruled out any connection to Sledge. His lawyers then interviewed the only surviving jailhouse informant, who recanted his testimony.* The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency devoted to investigating wrongful convictions, voted unanimously last December to refer Sledge’s case to a special tribunal for exoneration. On January 23, the three judges unanimously ruled that Sledge had been wrongly convicted and ordered his release. He spent almost four decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.