News, Social Security, Wrongful Convictions

After 37 Years, a Man Is Released from Prison for a Crime He Did Not Commit

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Another wrongful conviction and another instance of diminished economic opportunity

By Frederick H. Lowe

Joseph Sledge was a young man of 33 when he was sentenced to life in prison for a double murder he didn’t commit.

Sledge was a 70 year-old senior citizen when he was released from prison on Friday after serving 37 years in prison for the Sept. 6, 1976, stabbing and beating deaths of Josephine Davis, 74, and her daughter, Aileen Davis, 57, in their Elizabethtown, N.C., home. In 1978, a jury convicted Sledge of two counts of second-degree murder.

Sledge’s release represents racism by police and demonstrates how imprisonment exacerbates financial inequality for black men.

Joseph Sledge, who was sentenced to life in prison for a double murder he did not commit, was recently released at age 70. Sledge, who is wearing a white shirt and tie, is with Barbara Kinlaw, his sister. (The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence provided the photographs)

Although Sledge is a senior citizen, he probably does not qualify for Social Security retirement benefits because the nearly four decades he spent behind bars prevented him from holding a job that paid into Social Security.

Murder charges dropped

Three State Superior Court Judges ordered the murder charges dropped against Sledge after DNA pubic hair analysis and fingerprint evidence proved he didn’t commit the crime, Christine Mumma, executive director of North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence in Durham, told NorthStar News Today.Com and BlackmansStreet.Today.

Jon David, District Attorney for Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties, did not oppose the court’s order.

There was ample physical evidence at the crime scene but none of it pointed to Sledge.

Bloody palm prints were found on the floor on both sides of the murdered daughter’s head. And an African-American pubic hair was found on Aileen Davis’ abdomen; she was a white woman. Further examination of her body revealed that Davis had also sustained vaginal lacerations.

Police, however, did not pursue rape charges against Sledge because neither of the bloody palm prints matched those of Sledge or Aileen Davis, Mumma said. The pubic hair also did not match Sledge’s.

“They never charged Sledge with rape because it would have raised questions about all of their evidence,” Mumma said.

Police bolstered their case against Sledge with the testimony of two prison informants who tied Sledge to the murders. One informant was in solitary confinement where he had been relegated for possession of drugs while in prison. Although he was scheduled to be released from prison, he faced another 10 years behind bars for drug possession, if he did not testify against Sledge. The other informant told police Sledge admitted to committing the murders. The state offered a reward for information about the crime, and the informants were paid cash.

At the time of his trial, there was an atmosphere of fear in Bladen County. There were six unsolved murders and 14 escapes from Bladen Correctional Center, near White Lake, N.C. Area residents had lost confidence in law enforcement. At the time, the prison was called White Lake.

“Sledge became discardable,” Mumma said.

From the end of 1979 to 2003, Sledge filed 25 Pro Se motions, seeking assistance with his case. In 2003, a state judge granted his request for DNA testing.

When this occurred, the judge ordered a lawyer to represent Sledge. But no action was taken on the court order.

The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence is a nonprofit organization and its funds are to be used for clients who are indigent and cannot afford a lawyer. The judge’s order in this case stipulated that Sledge was entitled to legal representation that would be paid for by the state.

In 2004, the organization took the step of representing Sledge. And in 2012, they discovered the pubic hairs found on the victim did not match Sledge’s.

In May of 2013, the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence referred the case to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry

Commission, a state-funded agency that has the authority to investigate credible claims of innocence.

Christine Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.
Christine Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.

The North Carolina Inquiry Commission spent $60,130 for DNA tests of the pubic hair and fingerprint testing, Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, the commission’s executive director, told NorthStar News Today and BlackmansStreet.Today. The tests, which were paid for under a federal grant, proved that Sledge was innocent.

Police knew from the outset Sledge was innocent

“The police officers knew from the very beginning that Sledge was innocent,” Mumma said. The police officers who are now retired still live in the area.

He is eligible for $750,000 in state compensation from the State Industrial Commission, which handles Workers Compensation claims. “They should move rather quickly,” Mumma said.

Meanwhile, Sledge has returned to Savannah, Ga., where he is being cared for by two brothers, one who is 68 and one who is 67. He also has a sister who is 65.

Like many black men who have served decades in prison, he may not have worked long enough before his imprisonment to qualify for Social Security.

A 2009 research paper, titled “Incarceration & Social Inequality,” said that serving time in prison or jail diminishes social and economic opportunities for African-American men.

“Research literature examining the economic effects found that incarceration is associated with reduced earnings and employment,”  wrote the report’s authors Bruce Western and Becky Petit. Western is a professor of Sociology at Harvard Kennedy School and Petit is a professor of sociology at the University of Washington.

Mumma said Sledge may not qualify for Social Security, but that matter is unclear at this time. At his age he is unlikely to find a job.

A person born in 1929 or later needs 40 credits or 10 years of employment to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits.

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