Shortly before his death, Sledge settled out of court in his case against two state agencies whose shortcomings kept him in prison for more than a decade after evidence was available to prove his innocence. WECT has just learned that in March 2020, Sledge settled with the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Columbus County Clerk of Court’s Office for $2 million. In August 2020, he settled with the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) for $900,000.
Sledge had already received a $4 million settlement from Bladen County for its role in wrongfully convicting him in the 1976 murder of Josephine and Aileen Davis at their home outside of Elizabethtown. Among other things, investigators withheld evidence that would have cast doubt on Sledge’s involvement in the crime. The state also paid two jailhouse informants to falsely testify against Sledge at trial.
In addition, he received $750,0000 from the State of North Carolina, the maximum amount allowed to compensate people who have been wrongfully convicted, calculated based on the number of years they spent behind bars.
Sledge’s final legal battle against the SBI and the Administrative Office of the Court sought compensation for the state’s negligence in processing his request for DNA testing that could have proved his innocence after he was convicted. Sledge began requesting DNA testing of the evidence used against him in 1993, around the time that technology became available. He continued to make those requests for the next 20 years. Sledge’s requests were ignored in some cases, but even after a judge got on board, ordering the DNA testing, nothing happened.
It wasn’t until 2012, when a clerk in the Columbus County Courthouse was dusting in the evidence room, that she found the envelope that contained the forensic evidence that had been used to convict Sledge. The state had claimed for years that evidence had been lost or destroyed. Investigators later found additional evidence that was favorable to Sledge at the SBI headquarters in Raleigh.
Because of the failure of the Columbus County Clerk of Courts (which is governed by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts) and the State Bureau of Investigation to find and test the evidence in question that ultimately proved his innocence, Sledge remained in jail for another 15 years. Sledge’s attorneys argued that was a separate matter than the initial wrongful conviction.
The SBI and Administrative Office of the Courts previously sought to have the case against them dismissed, based on claims of sovereign immunity and the fact that he’d already received $750,000 for his wrongful incarceration. In December 2018, the North Carolina Industrial Commission ruled against the state agencies, allowing Sledge’s case against them to proceed.
Sledge’s picture was featured on this year’s holiday card from the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, the agency that finally took his case and helped him win his freedom.
The card reads:
“We are thankful for the support we received throughout this unprecedented year, but our hearts are heavy with the passing of Joseph Sledge after only 5 years of freedom. Our memories of him have only strengthened our resolve to fight for the others we know are innocent and NEED to be home with their families for the next holiday season. Please donate today to help us bring justice to those named on our ‘Ornaments of Hope’ and others who are incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.”