A three-judge panel ordered Friday that a North Carolina man who spent nearly four decades behind bars be freed from prison after finding him innocent in the 1976 stabbing deaths of a Bladen County mother and her adult daughter, reports WRAL TV.
Last month, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission recommended the case of Joseph Sledge for judicial review after newly discovered evidence cast doubt on whether he had anything to do with the killings of Josephine Davis, 74, and Ailene Davis, 53, in their Elizabethtown, North Carolina home.
Sledge was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in the September 1976 slayings of Davis and her daughter. They were found stabbed to death in their home a day after Sledge had escaped from a prison work farm where he was serving a four-year sentence for larceny, according to ABC News. That factored into his conviction, as well as key testimony from two fellow prisoners who said Sledge admitted to the killings.
One of the inmates recanted his testimony and told the Innocence Commission that he lied in exchange for leniency for a drug violation. The other inmate died in 1991.
Recent DNA testing on hairs found at the crime scene also shows that they could not have been Sledge’s, an expert testified Friday. Testing in the 1970s could only determine that they were from a black male.
In 2003, a judge ordered the hair samples turned over for DNA testing, but it took years of searching before they were found in an envelope on a top shelf in an evidence room in Bladen County reports WRAL.
District Attorney Jon David told the judges Friday that he believes there’s “substantial evidence” that Sledge is innocent, and he credited the work of the Innocence Commission for unearthing an “injustice” in Sledge’s conviction.
David, who was not the original prosecutor in the case, pledged to reopen the investigation and also apologized to Sledge for his wrongful conviction.
“There’s nothing worse for a prosecutor than convicting an innocent person,” he said.
Earlier Friday, a member of the Davis family took the stand, saying the family is “heartbroken” by the decision that Sledge go free.
Sledge then took the stand.
“I’m very, very sorry for your loss,” he said. “I hope you get closure in this matter.”
Sledge is the eighth person exonerated after the state set up the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, the only state-run investigative agency of its kind reports ABC News.
[Image via WRAL]