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January 24, 2015

Another remarkable exoneration thanks only to NC Innocence Inquiry Commission

3a47dbc6b83315036c0f6a70670038b2On this blog, I typically do not extensively cover or frequently discuss exonerations and criminal appeals based on actual innocence claims because, as some may know, I fear guilt/innocence concerns can at times distort sentencing procedures and policy debates focused only on indisputably guilty persons.  But this new amazing story out of North Carolina, headlined "After 36 years, Joseph Sledge's unfamiliar feeling: normal," seemed especially blogworthy for various reasons.  

Most significantly, I think, is that this remarkable NC story highlights the unique benefits resulting if (and perhaps only when) a jurisdiction has a special institution and special procedures for  dealing specifically with innocence claims. Here are the basic of one remarkable story that is embedded in the broader realities of North Carolina's unique approach to innocence concerns:

Joseph Sledge looked out across Lake Waccamaw on Friday afternoon, shivering against a cold January rain and trying to embrace an unfamiliar feeling: normal. Sledge walked out of jail Friday for the first time in 36 years without the burden of handcuffs and shackles.

He is finally free. The state had been wrong about him in 1978, and in all the years since; he is no killer. At 70, he will begin again. “I’m full up on freedom,” Sledge said shyly, leaning over a menu at Dale’s Seafood, a lakeside restaurant in rural Columbus County.

Sledge is the eighth man freed through a unique process that forces the state to deal with prisoners’ claims of innocence. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, created in 2006, examined Sledge’s innocence claim over the last 18 months, and in December, it voted that his case merited a possible exoneration.

On Friday afternoon, a trio of judges did just that. Jon David, the Columbus County district attorney, made their decision swift and easy; David told judges he had become convinced that Sledge was innocent.

As Superior Court Judge Tom Lock announced Sledge’s exoneration, a dozen photographers and reporters rushed toward Sledge and his attorneys. Sledge smiled slightly as his attorneys, Christine Mumma and Cheryl Sullivan of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, pulled him close. Applause erupted....

Sledge ... stole some T-shirts from a department store in the early 1970s. A judge sentenced him to four years in a prison camp in rural Eastern North Carolina. In 1976, with just a year left in his sentence, he escaped from the White Lake Prison Camp one night after a beef with another inmate.

That very night, not 5 miles away, someone brutally murdered Josephine and Ailene Davis, a mother and daughter, who lived together in rural Bladen County. That horrible coincidence set the course for Sledge’s life.

Sledge’s exoneration is bittersweet. It comes after dozens of mistakes and casual dismissals of his pleas for help. David, the district attorney, ticked through the justice system’s blind spots in Sledge’s case. The system wasn’t what it is now, he said. No DNA testing was available. The best it had – microscopic hair comparison – could only determine that Sledge’s pubic hair was consistent with pieces left on one victim’s exposed torso. Sledge’s escape and the wild testimony of two jailhouse informants made it all seem too obvious during the 1978 trial, which had been moved to Columbus County.

David said Friday that he regretted the system’s weaknesses and any part that court officials played in it. “There’s nothing we regret more to our values as prosecutors than to believe an innocent person is in prison,” David said. He offered Sledge an apology.

Mumma, who first encountered Sledge’s case a decade ago, has had a hard time swallowing all of the ways the criminal justice system failed Sledge – and the amount of time it took to make it right. Clues that should have sent investigators to other suspects were disregarded. None of the nearly 100 fingerprints taken from the crime scene matched Sledge’s. Investigators also collected head hairs from the victims’ bodies, but Sledge had always shaved his bare.

During two decades, Sledge sent dozens of letters to judges, police officials and prosecutors asking that they find and test evidence from his case for DNA. Yet it took nearly 20 years for a clerk to find hairs that would prove his innocence. By happenstance, a Columbus County clerk climbed a ladder in late 2012 while cleaning the evidence vault; she found an envelope flat on the top shelf with the missing hairs. The clerks had been ordered to search for that evidence as far back as 2003.

Without the state’s new apparatus for testing innocence claims, Sledge might have remained in prison. The Center on Actual Innocence and the Innocence Inquiry Commission interviewed dozens of people, testing memories that had faded over decades.  Commission staff discovered crime scene evidence and investigators’ notes that local sheriff’s deputies had said for years had been lost or destroyed.  The commission spent $60,000 on forensic testing.

January 24, 2015 at 01:09 PM | Permalink


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A system with less hubris need not and would not set indisputably guilty persons free. The various innocence projects merely make the system a little more humble so that it cannot take itself for granted and think itself so perfect. For example, there is probably someone reading this story thinking it Joseph Sledge's fault because if he hadn't escaped he could not be a suspect in the first place. Removing that arrogant leap of faith -- escapee = murderer, or close enough for government work -- from the system would not free the guilty. Indeed, such leaps of faith might set the indisputably guilty persons free, as it did in this case. After all, if Sledge was innocent, someone else was guilty.

Posted by: George | Jan 24, 2015 2:38:01 PM

"During two decades, Sledge sent dozens of letters to judges, police officials and prosecutors asking that they find and test evidence from his case for DNA. Yet it took nearly 20 years for a clerk to find hairs that would prove his innocence. By happenstance, a Columbus County clerk climbed a ladder in late 2012 while cleaning the evidence vault; she found an envelope flat on the top shelf with the missing hairs. The clerks had been ordered to search for that evidence as far back as 2003."

That makes the tort an intentional one, on a per se basis, since they violated a court order. Exemplary damages are therefore justified.

The cost of being wrongfully imprisoned, minus its benefits should be calculated. Such an individual is better off on the the dole for his disability, so its roughly 40 years times $7000/year. Prison also prevented his committing more serious crimes, and saved his life since half the people in the crime world are murdered. Any eyewitness should also be sued.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 24, 2015 2:38:31 PM

Imagine any enterprise operating at this slow pace or this incompetently. Isn't it time to end lawyer self dealt immunities, because they are harmful to the lawyer profession itself.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 24, 2015 2:55:01 PM

I applaud Doug for publishing this article. I just read about this case in a NC newspaper. The innocence projects around the nation do a great service to justice and to America. It is my wish that more law schools would join innocence projects.

This particular fellow has certainly suffered because of a bad system. But he was exonerated by a system, and a State which has embraced reforms. This setup in NC is unique and needs to be copied in all states and the District of Columbia.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jan 24, 2015 6:53:22 PM

good one SC. I was just wondering if they handed him a fat check as he walked out.

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 24, 2015 10:51:35 PM

So do we believe in limited government, and allow cases like these happen, or big government with overzealous prosecution, so politics is not so black and white. Prosecutes have too much power regardless and are protected from immunity.

NC has not really embraced the needed reforms and other states have the same problem, even after the DUKE lacrosse case, NC legislatures voted to give prosecutors more power.

Posted by: Morgan | Jan 25, 2015 2:41:49 AM

The Supreme Court has mandated absolute immunity, even if the prosecutor acted in bad faith and with malice.

The original justification for sovereign immunity was that the sovereign spoke with the voice of God. That is all there is. OK in 1275 AD. Ridiculous and lawless in 2015 AD. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Welcome to the lawyer Twilight Zone. Furthermore, statutes and precedent enumerate dozens if not hundreds of duties of the prosecutor to the defendant. These make the violations per se torts, with good justification for exemplary damages. One may go as far as calling the activity of prosecutors as qualifying for strict liability. The ruling of the Supreme Court may be characterized as denial of the self evident or even delusional.

The Supreme Court forgets formal logic from high school. If liability is a substitute for violence, then immunity justifies violence as a remedy.

But, here is the real purpose. Liability shrinks an entire enterprise. Immunity grows the entire enterprise. And the ruling is to grow the size of government, which it is doing quite successfully.

But the cost is to have a high crime rate, and to have a high false conviction rate. These are devastating.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 25, 2015 3:24:54 AM

Not sure why the disclaimer at the top of the column about not use;;y publishing articles about exonerations. Exonerations are the FAILED end of a rotten criminal justice system. Almost all--not all--of the pictures I see of jubilant men hugging just as happy lawyers are Black. The lawyers are white.
And you have doubts about actual innocence?

North Carolina has a terrible record and with 2 or 3 exonerations from Forsyth County (Winston-Salem) and more across the state something is wrong.

Posted by: Earl Smith | Jan 25, 2015 6:02:30 AM

Earl Smith, PhD

Posted by: Earl Smith | Jan 25, 2015 6:03:16 AM

We have government, some say, because we are not angels. This means the criminal justice system is not perfect. It is far from perfect. There are some unknown group of people who shouldn't be but are in prison for various reasons, including factual innocence (others are in w/o the adequate amount of evidence to meet the test required). Thankfully, there are means to address this and stories like this show why.

Oh, the death penalty is wrong, even for heinous criminals, in part since the system is imperfect, not trivially so.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 26, 2015 9:37:41 AM

Well fucking yay. Before we break our arms patting each other on the back, has North Carolina instituted any reforms to prevent this from happening again? Have they instituted any checks on the use of so-called jailhouse informants (which might have resulted in an acquittal, or even a non-prosecution, in 1978)? Have they put in place any concrete requirements about the orderly preservation of evidence (which could have resulted in an exoneration as early as 2003)? If not, then what you've got is a old man let out of prison having lost basically all of his productive years to a horrible mistake, and a system that is not necessarily any less likely to make similar mistakes in the future.

It drives me crazy when the mere fact of release in one of these cases is presented as a feel-good story. I mean, it is great that there is an institutional commitment to looking for evidence of past mistakes. But what would really make me feel good would be if there was some indication of systemic reform to prevent mistakes from happening in the first place. Maybe that exists, but it is not mentioned in this article.

Posted by: anon | Jan 26, 2015 3:37:58 PM

"systemic reform to prevent mistakes from happening in the first place"

Sure. But, they are ALWAYS going to happen to some degree. Human nature and institutional flaws are never going to disappear, particularly given the number of people that enter the system. So after the fact safeguards will continue to be necessary.

The preventive care, so to speak, concern is important, but it's always there. So, when we have people commit crimes, often the question arises if there is a way to stop that before it occurs, particularly repeat offenders. Each article isn't going to cover everything here.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 26, 2015 5:25:32 PM

anon: I feel bad that there are so many innocent people in prison. I feel good when a fellow gets out. One type of reform which might prevent bad trials and innocents being imprisoned would be to implement a comprehensive sufficiency of the evidence jurisprudence. Although there is federal jurisprudence on the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt on each element of an offense in a circumstantial evidence situation, many states ignore this. Jackson v. Virginia is one of the lead Scotus cases. States like Missouri are proud that they are Unreconstructed-- meaning that they do not apply in their state courts the fair trial rights of the constitution as required by the 14th Amendment upon the states.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jan 26, 2015 11:29:16 PM


"Oh, the death penalty is wrong, even for heinous criminals, in part since the system is imperfect, not trivially so."

Stop all transportation, including walking. Did you know that an appalling 30000 people die in the most horrible butchery, including 100's of pedestrians a year? Transportation is wrong, since the system is imperfect, not trivially so.

How about, medicine, construction, farming, manufacturing, garbage collection, how about knitting, cooking, or peeing?


Far more people die in the shower than are falsely executed. Where is you concern there? I think I know. Those people do not generate $billions in government make work jobs for the lawyer.


Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 27, 2015 3:14:59 AM

The death penalty is "in part" wrong.

It is not worth its imperfections. Various things in life are.

This is the latest in "bad arguments" theater.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 27, 2015 11:01:13 AM

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