A North Carolina man who spent nearly 40 years incarcerated for murder was freed Friday after a panel of judges found him innocent.
Joseph Sledge, 70, walked out of the Columbus County jail to greet his family, before heading home to Savannah, Georgia.
Sledge’s case was recommended for review by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state panel that looks into possible wrongful convictions. New evidence had cast doubt on whether Sledge killed Josephine and Ailene Davis, a mother and her adult daughter, in 1976.
District Attorney Jon David said in court Friday there was “substantial evidence” that Sledge was wrongfully convicted, and apologized to Sledge.
“There’s nothing worse for a prosecutor than convicting an innocent person,” David said.
Sledge offered his condolences to the victim’s family. “Davis family members, I’m very, very sorry for your loss,” he said during a court appearance Friday, according to local news station WRAL. “I hope you get closure in this matter.”
But a member of the Davis family said they were “heartbroken” that Sledge would go free.
A day before the women were stabbed to death, Sledge had escaped from a prison work farm. Two fellow prisoners said Sledge had confessed to the murders. But one of those inmates told the Innocence Inquiry Commission that he had lied in order to get a better deal in his own drug case. The other inmate died in 1991.
Recent DNA testing also confirmed that hairs found at the crime scene could not have been Sledge’s. The hairs had long been thought to be lost, but were discovered in 2012 by a court clerk.
The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission has now helped exonerate eight people since its creation in 2006.
For the 36 years he spent in jail, Sledge is owed $750,000 by the state of North Carolina.