Panel exonerates Joseph Sledge in 1976 murders
WHITEVILLE, NC (WWAY) — For the first time in about four decades, Joseph Sledge is a free man. A three-judge panel exonerated Sledge this afternoon for the 1976 murders of a mother and her daughter in Bladen County.
The panel of Judges Thomas H. Lock, Anna Mills Wagoner and Kevin Bridges today heard testimony from a court clerk, who helped find previously unknown evidence Sledge’s case, and a forensics expert, who said there was no DNA evidence linking Sledge to the murders.
Josephine Davis’s granddaughter Catherine Brown spoke to the panel during the hearing. She said the exoneration now leaves the murders as unsolved mysteries, which adds to her family’s hurt. She asked anyone with information about what really happened come forward.
Sledge also spoke briefly and told the Davis family he is very sorry for their loss.
District Attorney Jon David said the fingerprints found in storage in the last few years not only did not implicate Sledge, but excluded him from the crime scene. David said the new physical evidence will be used as investigators reopen the case.
The judges ordered Sledge be released from custody after he was processed out at the Columbus County Jail. He was escorted there by Sheriff Lewis Hatcher, who, as Bladen County deputy, had transported Sledge to prison after his conviction.
Today’s hearing came after a three-day hearing in December where commissioners of the Innocence Inquiry Commission unanimously concluded sufficient evidence of actual innocence merited judicial review.
Sledge, 70, has spent more than half his life in prison. Sledge escaped from White Lake Prison Camp, a minimum security facility, after an argument with another inmate on Sept. 6, 1976. The same night, Josephine and Ailene Davis were stabbed to death in their Elizabethtown home.
Sledge said he escaped the prison to avoid a confrontation with the other inmate. David said Sledge had escaped from other prisons in the past. Sledge’s criminal history includes two convictions for escape attempts, as well as the one for his successful 1976 escape.
Evidence presented at December’s innocence hearing included newly-discovered physical evidence and retractions from a jailhouse informant who originally testified.
David said today’s hearing was to “correct an injustice.”
“Let me be the first person, on behalf of the State of North Carolina, to say sorry,” David said to Sledge during the DA’s closing statement. He also apologized to the victims’ family for what they are going through because Sledge was wrongfully convicted.
In 1978, Sledge’s murder trial was moved to Columbus County, which is why today’s hearing was held in Whiteville.