RALEIGH — Attorneys representing Joseph Sledge, the man who spent nearly 40 years in prison for the murder of two Elizabethtown women before DNA proved his innocence, have filed a civil lawsuit against Bladen County law enforcement officers and the Columbus County Clerk of Court, past and present.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District on Aug. 21. Attorney W. Leslie Johnson Jr. of the Johnson Law Firm said the firm did not receive a copy of the suit until Wednesday, Sept. 2. Johnson Law Firm represents Bladen County.
Johnson said he has spoken with the attorney for Sledge and the firm now has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit. Johnson along with his son Allen Johnson will represent the county’s interests.
Named as defendants in the suit are former Bladen County Sheriff Earl Storms, former Bladen County Chief Deputy Phillip Little, former Bladen County Sheriff Steve Bunn, former Bladen County Sheriff Prentis Benston, Bladen County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Singletary, former State Bureau of Investigation agent Henry Poole, the estate of Linda Faye Proctor who served as clerk of court for Columbus County, current Columbus County Clerk of Court Sheila Proctor, Deputy Columbus County Clerk of Court, and the companies that hold the surety bonds for Bladen and Columbus counties.
According to court documents, the lawsuit alleges that Sledge was wrongly convicted of the murders of Josephine Davis and her daughter Aileen Davis that occurred in late 1976.
In September 1976, Sledge was serving a four-year sentence for larceny and receiving stolen goods and was being held at the White Lake Prison Camp. While working on a road crew, Sledge reported he was assaulted by another inmate, John Fowler. According to the filing, Sledge feared Fowler would retaliate and escaped from the prison camp on Sept. 5, 1976. The bodies of Josephine and Aileen Davis were found in their home on N.C. 242 North the next day.
The suit alleges that evidence gathered at the scene included fingerprints, shoe impressions and hairs. According to the court documents, the shoeprints did not match any shoes Sledge was known to have worn and the fingerprints did not match Sledge.
The lawsuit alleges that, as pressure mounted for investigators to solve the case, the SBI was brought in to assist the investigation. The lawsuit alleges that Little and Poole encouraged fellow prisoners Herman Baker and Donnie Lee Sutton to give false testimony about a confession allegedly made to them by Sledge. It is also alleges that Poole and Little conspired to hide exculpatory evidence that would have assisted Sledge’s attorneys during his trial.
Sledge was tried twice for the murders in 1978, one trial ending in a hung jury in May 1978 and the second trial ending in a sentence of life in prison in August 1978.
The lawsuit also alleges that from the period of 1993 to 2013, Sledge was denied his right to have DNA testing performed on the evidence.
“At various points throughout the investigation of the Davis murder, defendants collected fingerprints and blood samples,” the lawsuit reads.
The suit also states that hair samples were collected from Aileen Davis. The suit alleges that from 1993 to 2003, Sledge and others acting on his behalf, had petitioned the Columbus County Clerk of Court for hair and blood evidence to be submitted for DNA testing. The suit alleges the CCCO was deficient in its “safekeeping, storing and handling of evidence.”
Also, Baker recanted his testimony he had given earlier against Sledge. Sutton had passed away.
In 2013, the lawsuit alleges the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office produced evidence that was DNA tested and confirmed Sledge’s protestations of innocence. In January 2015, Sledge received a hearing before a three-judge innocence panel that exonerated him.
Though no dollar amounts are attatched to the lawsuit, it asks for compensatory and punitive damages as well as legal fees to be determined at the trial.
“The state has a fund for wrongful convictions,” said Johnson. He was referring to the $750,000 Sledge has already been awarded by the state for his wrongful incarceration.
—Erin Smith can be reached at 910-862-4163.