We will tell you right up front that we remain squarely on the fence as we opine over Bladen County’s recent agreement to pay Joseph Sledge $4 million to settle a lawsuit he filed against the county.
As you well know, Sledge was charged and convicted with the murders of two Elizabethtown women back in the 1970s and spent the better part of 40 years in prison. Over the past few years, a myriad of stumbles were revealed concerning that path to conviction — including potential mishandling of evidence, the testimony and recanting by two jailbirds, etc.
But it was DNA, which was not available in the 1970s, that finally showed Sledge did not commit the murders and he was set free.
As expected, Sledge and his attorney filed lawsuits against Bladen County, its sheriff’s office and several of the deputies and administrators involved with his incarceration.
There were rumors that Sledge would be looking for $1 million for every year he’d spent in prison, but a more reliable number emerged as $12.5 million — and the county arrived at the $4 million offer by a 7-2 vote late last month.
Charles Ray Peterson, who is the chairman of the Board of Commissioners, along with Commissioner Daniel Dowless, cast the two opposition votes and made valid points.
We can see the wisdom of the seven commissioners who voted to give Sledge the $4 million. After all, allowing a case like this to go to court would put the county at the mercy of a jury. That’s enough of an unpredictable position to cause serious concern nowadays, because there is little for Sledge to have to prove. He was wrongly convicted and spent almost 40 years in prison. Fact and fact.
With that in mind, $4 million seems like a fair price tag to be on the hook for — especially given the fact that the county would be required to pay $900,000 and the balance would be paid by the county’s insurance company.
On the other hand, we can also see the merit in what Peterson and Dowless were thinking.
“I will be the first to say, I’m not sure which way is the correct way to vote,” Peterson said. “I do think that if I were a juror on this case with the knowledge I do have, I would not pay Sledge anything.
“I really think our lawyers have done their work and have enough evidence to get a not guilty verdict or at least a verdict under our insurance coverage,” he added. “How can we give someone $900,000 county tax dollars without a fight?”
A solid argument.
But as a legal mind recently told us, “you’re damned if you do and damned if your don’t.” One of the cherries on top of this costly cake is that the frivolous lawsuits against the sheriff’s office and employees should now also go away.
And so, as we settle uncomfortably on our perch atop the fence with this issue, we will at least say there is an urge to breathe a sigh of relief that the issue is at least finished.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.” (Unknown)