A North Carolina man, who served almost 40 years in prison after he was wrongly convicted of stabbing a woman and her adult daughter in 1976, was freed from jail Friday. Joseph Sledge, 70, was released after a special panel of three judges ruled that he did not commit the crime.
"Going home. Relaxing. Sleeping in a real bed. Probably get in a pool of water and swim for a little while," Sledge, who is an African-American, said after being released from the jail, according to The Associated Press (AP), adding: "I had confidence in my own self. The self will and the patience."
A DNA expert testified in court that the sample collected by investigators four decades ago did not match Sledge’s DNA. His lawyer Christine Mumma took his case in 2004 and had even considered closing the case in 2012. However, the court clerks found a misplaced envelope, which turned out to be a key piece of evidence. The envelope contained hair, found on the victim and believed to be that of the attacker. It wasn't available when Sledge was tried in 1978, according to AP.
The case was then referred to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission in 2013. The state commission concluded that there was enough evidence of Sledge's innocence and referred the case to a panel of three judges, who were appointed by the state Supreme Court.
Sledge was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing Josephine Davis, 74, and Aileen, her daughter, 57. Aileen was sexually assaulted and found murdered in September 1976 in Elizabethtown, a day after Sledge had escaped from a prison work farm where he was serving a four-year sentence for larceny, AP reported.
Relatives of the victims have, however, repeatedly insisted that Sledge committed the crimes, despite new evidence pointing toward his innocence.
"Joseph Sledge deserves the criminal environment and should never be among decent white people -- excuse me, should never be among decent people again," Donald Hales, Josephine Davis' grandson, had written in an account published in the News and Observer of Raleigh, Los Angeles Times reported. He had also written a letter, which was read to the commission during an earlier hearing, in which he claimed Sledge was "a killer of white she-devils."
According to state law, Sledge is now entitled to a payment of $750,000 from the state for spending 37 years in prison, the Los Angeles Times reported.