Nearly 40 years after he was sentenced to prison for a double murder, 70-year-old Joseph Sledge walked free from a county prison in North Carolina on Friday after a special three-judge panel ruled that he didn't commit the crime.
"Going home. Relaxing. Sleeping in a real bed. Probably get in a pool of water and swim," Sledge told reporters shortly after he was set free following a review of decades-old evidence that showed someone else stabbed to death an elderly woman and her daughter in 1976.
A DNA expert testified before the three judges Friday that hair, DNA and fingerprints collected by investigators four decades ago did not match Sledge's.
Sledge spent more than half his life in prison after he was convicted of the murders of Josephine Davis, 74, and her 57-year-old daughter, Aileen, at their home in the small North Carolina town of Elizabethtown.
Sledge is the eighth man exonerated under a novel procedure established in North Carolina in 2006 to examine claims of innocence by inmates.
The Innocence Inquiry Commission, the only state-run investigative agency of its kind, examined Sledge's case for more than a year. It followed up on an investigation of the killings by the nonprofit North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.
The commission, which began operating in 2007, has reviewed about 1,500 cases.
In December, the commission voted unanimously to send the Sledge case to the three-judge panel, appointed by the state Supreme Court, for a thorough review. The panel ruled Friday that Sledge was wrongfully convicted.
At Friday's hearing, a prosecutor who was not involved in the original case apologized to Sledge. "The system has made a mistake," Columbus County Dist. Atty. Jon David told him.
In 2012, hairs collected from the scene of the slayings – evidence said to have been lost – were discovered in an envelope tucked away in a court clerk's storage room. DNA tests showed that the hairs came from someone other than Sledge.
A key witness against Sledge, a jailhouse informant named Herman Baker, signed an affidavit in 2013 recanting his trial testimony. Baker said he falsely accused Sledge at the 1978 trial after he was promised leniency in his drug case. He said he had been coached by investigators on what to say.
Relatives of the slain women have long insisted that Sledge committed the crimes, despite new evidence that pointed to someone else.
Donald Hales, Josephine Davis' grandson, wrote in a letter read to the commission during an earlier hearing that Sledge was "a killer of white she-devils." Baker and another jailhouse informant testified in 1978 that Sledge was a violent racist who believe white women were devils.
Sledge is African American. The two victims were white.
"Joseph Sledge deserves the criminal environment and should never be among decent white people – excuse me, should never be among decent people again," Hales wrote, according to an account published in the News and Observer of Raleigh.
On Friday, Sledge, dressed in a white shirt and tie, turned to relatives of the slain women and said, "Davis family members, I'm very sorry for your loss. I hope you get closure in this matter."
The district attorney said he would reopen the case using the DNA evidence. The commission has tested DNA samples from possible suspects and their relatives, but said there had not been a match.
Under state law, Sledge is entitled to a $750,000 payment from the state for the 36 years he spent in prison.
After Friday's ruling, Sledge hugged his lawyer and several family members, then walked outside to a waiting car. Family members said they were driving Sledge to Savannah, Ga., where they said he planned to move in with a brother and begin rebuilding his life.