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Wrongfully Convicted North Carolina Man Receives $4 Million

A North Carolina man who served 37 years for a double homicide he did not commit has received a $4 million settlement from the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) in a federal lawsuit.

Joseph Sledge, Jr. became a suspect in the September 5, 1976 murder of Josephine Davis, 74, and her daughter Aileen Davis, 57. Both victims were found naked and stabbed to death in their Elizabethtown home. An autopsy revealed Aileen had been sexually assaulted. Sledge was a suspect because the day before he had escaped from the nearby White Lake Prison Camp.

When he was recaptured on September 9, 1976, he was brought to the crime scene. Sledge detailed his escape route, consented to blood and pubic hair samples, and denied any involvement in the deaths. Investigators lifted 97 prints at the scene, none of which matched Sledge. Two palm prints with clear ridge lines visible in the blood on either side of Aileen’s head did not match Sledge, nor did shoe prints found at the scene. In sum, none of the physical evidence linked him to the murders.

Public pressure to solve the crime mounted, and the governor offered and then increased a reward. BSCO Deputy Philip Little and State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) Special Agent Henry Poole interviewed Herman Baker and Donnie Lee Sutton in 1977 and 1978. They had both served time with Sledge and gave testimony stating he had confessed to the murders. Baker subsequently received a $3,000 reward and Sutton received $2,000 following their trial testimony. Sutton was also never prosecuted for an escape from the White Lake Prison Camp.

The false testimony by Baker and Sutton led to Sledge’s conviction, and he was sentenced to life in prison in 1978. Between 1980 and 2002, Sledge filed more than 25 pro se post-conviction motions proclaiming his innocence in state and federal court. Between 1993 and 2003, Sledge and organizations acting on his behalf submitted multiple requests to the Columbus County Clerk’s Office to provide hair and blood samples for DNA testing. Finally, in 2003, a state court ordered the agency to submit any evidence related to the case for DNA analysis.

The following year, the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence began representing Sledge. Efforts to clear him through evidence provided by the involved law enforcement agencies were fruitless until 2013.

That year, Baker recanted his trial testimony implicating Sledge, and DNA testing of hairs belonging to a black male found at the crime scene were found to exclude Sledge. A search of the BCSO’s office by staff from the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission uncovered initial statements that were contrary to evidence presented at trial.

At a January 23, 2015 hearing of the Innocence Commission, the state agreed that Sledge had met his burden to prove his innocence. The Commission unanimously declared Sledge innocent, and he was released from prison in February 2015. He was 70 years old. [See: PLN, April 2015, p.16].

Sledge filed a wrongful conviction suit in federal court shortly after his release, and on September 6, 2017 his attorneys filed a notice that the BSCO had agreed to settle the case for $4 million.

“With this settlement, Bladen County has taken responsibility,” said Burton Craige, one of the lawyers who represented Sledge. “Now the SBI and Columbus County Clerk’s Office need to do the same.” Lawsuits against those agencies remain pending; previously, Sledge received $750,000 in compensation from the state. See: Sledge v. Little, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NC), Case No. 7:15-cv-00180-D. 

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Related legal case

Sledge v. Little