Back in 1978, Joseph Sledge, a drifter and Army veteran, was convicted of the grisly 1978 murders of Josephine Davis and her daughter Ailene in Bladen County, roughly halfway between Fayetteville and Wilmington in southeastern North Carolina. The state relied largely on the testimony of two jailhouse informants. Now, 34 years later, one of those informants, Herman Baker, Jr., has dropped a bombshell--law enforcement coached his testimony. Armed with this evidence, Sledge's attorney, Christine Mumma, filed a motion yesterday seeking full exoneration for Sledge.
Herman Baker Jr. provided the most damning testimony against Sledge at his 1978 trial. Baker painted the jury a picture of Sledge as a racist who brutalized an elderly white woman and her grown daughter after escaping from a nearby prison. He told jurors Sledge believed white women were “she devils” who ought to be killed to protect black people.However, in a sworn affidavit, Baker now says that testimony was a complete fabrication that was spoon-fed to him by Bladen County sheriff's deputies. In the statement, Baker says that the deputies told him he'd be charged with the Davises' murders if he didn't cooperate. However, if he did, he'd get a portion of the $5,000 reward offered for information leading to the conviction of the perp. As it turns out, Baker received $3,000 of the reward. The informant who got the rest of the money, Donnie Sutton, died in 1991. Sledge thought from the beginning that Baker and Sutton's testimony smelled; he never even recalled talking to Baker.
At trial, Baker offered two details that investigators had never publicly released. Baker said Sledge hit one of the women in the jaw; an autopsy showed that Josephine Davis’ jaw had been broken.
Baker provided jurors another vital tidbit: Sledge confessed to sprinkling black pepper around the bloody scene and out the back of the house to keep the women’s spirits from following him.
Bladen County sheriff’s detective Phillip Little retrieved a can of black pepper from the house after interviewing Baker in February 1978, more than 18 months after the killings. Little submitted the pepper can at trial to validate Baker’s story.
There had already been serious doubt about the case against Sledge since December, when a DNA test on hair found on the Davises proved that the hairs didn't belong to Sledge. But this latest revelation by Baker appears to remove any doubt--Sledge is innocent.
Mumma's motion for relief not only asks for Sledge's immediate release and the dismissal of all charges against him, but also asks for an investigation into all cases involving Little and the State Bureau of Investigation agent who handled the case, Henry Poole. If they did in fact take part in this, they could face charges of obstructing justice.
One other interesting twist--the assistant DA who worked on the case was Mike Easley, who later went on to become North Carolina's governor. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that Easley knew about any law enforcement misconduct in this case.
Under North Carolina law, a judge must schedule an evidentiary hearing or issue a ruling on Mumma's request by the end of May. As egregious as this sounds, one can only hope this comes sooner than later.