Joseph Sledge was released from prison on Friday after the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission proved he was innocent.
Mr. Sledge was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in the deaths of a mother and her adult daughter in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, in 1976.
In 2012, while cleaning out a high shelf in an evidence room, court clerks found a key piece of evidence needed to do DNA testing that would exonerate Mr. Sledge. That discovery led to the case being referred to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state-run investigative agency that started operating in 2007. Mr. Sledge is the eighth person exonerated after an investigation by the commission, which has reviewed and closed about 1500 cases.
The Innocence Inquiry Commission interviewed dozens of people and discovered crime scene evidence and investigators’ notes that local sheriff’s deputies had said for years had been lost or destroyed. It spent $60,000 on forensic testing.
The commission found enough evidence of Mr. Sledge’s innocence to refer his case to a special three-judge panel appointed by the state Supreme Court. The panel heard testimony that none of the evidence from the scene, including hair, DNA, and fingerprints, belonged to Mr. Sledge. The key jailhouse informant signed an affidavit in 2013 recanting his trial testimony and saying he lied at the 1978 trial after authorities promised him leniency in his own case and coached him on what to say.
As prosecutors have done in several other Innocence Commission exonerations, Columbus County district attorney Jon David told the judges he had become convinced that Mr. Sledge is innocent. Mr. 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,” Mr. David said. He offered Mr. Sledge an apology.
On Friday, the panel unanimously voted that Mr. Sledge, now 70 years old, had proven his innocence and ordered his release. The state now must pay him $750,000 for the 36 years he was wrongfully incarcerated.