North Carolina man wrongly convicted decades ago freed from prison

Another North Carolina inmate has been exonerated by DNA evidence and freed after spending decades in prison for a wrongful murder conviction.

Joseph Sledge was set free Friday after a three-judge panel found that he was innocent of a 1976 killing of a mother and a daughter. The 70-year-old is the third inmate to be freed in less than six months in the state.

After he was released, Sledge said he was really looking forward to going home and doing the "most mundane" things: "Going home, relaxing and sleeping in a real bed."

The lawyer who took his case in 2004, Christine Mumma, said she had been on the verge of closing the case in 2012 when court clerks discovered a misplaced envelope containing hair from the crime scene while cleaning out an evidence vault.

The envelope contained hair, found on the victim and believed to be the attacker's, that turned out to be a key piece of evidence needed to do DNA testing, which wasn't available when Sledge went on trial in 1978.

"I understand those shelves were very high, but there was a ladder in that room," said Mumma, a lawyer for the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.

The case was referred to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission in 2013. Sledge is the eighth person exonerated after an investigation by the commission.

The commission is the only state-run agency of its kind and since 2007 it has reviewed and closed nearly 1,500 cases.

The judges considered the commission's investigative file, and a DNA expert highlighted lab tests in her testimony Friday. Meghan Clement of Cellmark Forensics said none of the evidence collected from the scene — hair, DNA and fingerprints — belonged to Sledge.

The key jailhouse informant, Herman Baker, signed an affidavit in 2013 recanting trial testimony. Baker said he lied at the 1978 trial after being promised leniency in his own drug case and he said he'd been coached by authorities on what to say.

Testimony from another jailhouse informant was inconsistent, according to the commission documents. That informant died in 1991.

The victims, Josephine Davis, 74, and daughter Aileen, 57, were stabbed to death in September 1976. THey were found in their home in Elizabethtown a day after Sledge had escaped from a prison work farm where ha was serving a four-year sentence for larceny.

Sledge was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder and sentence to life in prison.

After his release, Sledge was headed to Savannah, Georgia, to live with family. He told reporters he never doubted he'd be freed someday despite spending more than half his life in prison.

"I had confidence in my own self. The self will and the patience," he said before trailing off and searching for the right word. "Patience is the word."

The Associated Press contributed to this report