RALEIGH –For 39 years, Joseph Sledge was behind bars, convicted of a double murder in Bladen County. His days were precisely mapped out for sleep, eating, exercise and quiet time. Every day the same.
But one day recently was different. It was the day Sledge was released from prison — a free man for the first time since 1976.
Josephine Davis, 74, and her daughter Ailene, 53, were murdered in the Elizabethtown home on N.C. 242 in September 1976. Their deaths coincided with Sledge’s escape from the White Lake Prison Farm, where he had been serving a four-year sentence for larceny.
A jury in Columbus County convicted Sledge based on the testimony of two jailhouse snitches and expert testimony that hairs found on the victims’ bodies were similar to Sledge’s.
According to an investigation by the N.C. Center for Actual Innocence and the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission in 2014, additional evidence never considered by the jury — including bloody fingerprints, palm prints and shoe prints — pointed a finger away from Sledge.
In addition, the lone surviving snitch recanted his testimony and DNA testing proved the hairs did not match Sledge.
In January, a three-judge panel declared Sledge innocent of the murders in January and he was released from prison.
Sledge has since moved to Savannah, Ga., where he is reconnecting with family. But interest in the case remains, especially with the investigation into the double murders has been reopened by District Attorney Jon David — and WRAL-TV will air an in-depth documentary into Sledge’s case on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
“WRAL is the only media outlet telling the Joseph Sledge story in documentary form, from an exclusive interview with his original trial attorney, to traveling to Savannah to spend time with Joseph and his family,” said Clay Johnson, documentary producer for WRAL-TV. “The WRAL Documentary also shows how investigators will use the uncovered evidence and DNA testing in their effort to solve what is now a nearly 40-year-old cold case.”
Johnson and his team recently spent countless hours in Bladen County and elsewhere for the documentary, including time at the Bladen Journal sifting through the archives. It was during that time that a WRAL cameraman, who was filming footage at the abandoned N.C. 242 home, was attacked by Donald Hales, a relative of the Davises. Hales was arrested and will soon face assault charges in court.
“An Obvious Suspect” examines the case and looks at how Sledge is adjusting to life after spending 39 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
The documentary, hosted by WRAL-News anchor Gerald Owens, premieres Tuesday with a statewide schedule — on WRAL-TV at 7 p.m.; on WILM-TV at 7 p.m.; and on WRAZ-TV on Sunday, July 5, at 5 p.m.
To watch a preview of the documentary, go to http://www.wral.com/ and search: WRAL doc.
— W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.