North Carolina frees innocent man after spending half his life in jail
Joseph Sledge as he's released from prison (News & Observer)

Joseph Sledge, 70, spent 36 years in prison for a double murder. Now the state’s groundbreaking innocence commission has proved he did not do it

After DNA testing on the contents of a long-forgotten envelope opened another path to innocence, a 70-year-old African American prisoner who has lived behind bars in North Carolina for more than 36 years was cleared on Friday of the double murder for which he was convicted.

Joseph Sledge will walk from prison a free man, having spent more than half his life there. Prosecutors in Bladen County, North Carolina, told a court that there was “substantial evidence” of his innocence. The inmate has consistently proclaimed that he was wrongfully accused of the murders of Josephine Davis, 70, and her daughter Ailene Davis, 53, in 1976.

The break in the case came in 2012 when hairs collected from the two women’s bodies and wounded foreheads were discovered in an envelope in an evidence room at Bladen County. State authorities had previously said that the materials had gone missing or disappeared.

The hairs were then subjected to DNA testing which conclusively proved that they did not belong to Sledge. The current district attorney for the area, Jon David, told the panel of three judges presiding over the hearing that on the basis of the DNA findings the case would be reopened and the hunt for the true killer or killers would begin again.

“There’s nothing worse for a prosecutor than convicting an innocent person,” David said.

Sledge also addressed the court. According to the local News and Observer , he told the family of the victims who had assembled for the hearing that “I’m very, very sorry for your loss. I hope you get closure in this matter.”

His exoneration is another massive achievement for North Carolina’s unique system of investigating wrongful convictions. In 2006, the state assembly established the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission – a body vested with full statutory powers to investigate cases, subpoena witnesses and more.

Sledge is the eighth inmate to have been found innocent by the commission, which in total has reviewed more than 1,600 cases since it was set up. In September, the work of the commission was instrumental in the release of the half-brothers Leon Brown and Henry McCollum , who both spent more than 30 years in prison, with McCollum on death row.

In their cases, the commission found a positive match from materials collected at the location where an 11-year-old girl was murdered with the DNA of a known sex offender who was in prison serving time for another offence.

According to the News and Observer, Sledge will now return with his family to his original home in Georgia. Under North Carolina law, he is entitled to $750,000 from the state in compensation for the years lost. © Guardian News and Media 2015

Watch video of Joseph Sledge being release from prison below: