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WHITEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — For the first time in nearly 40 years, Joseph Sledge woke up behind bars with a chance of becoming a free man.
The 70-year-old man needed one more win at an innocence hearing. As three judges listened to closing statements Friday about how Sledge was wrongfully convicted in the 1976 stabbing deaths of a mother and her adult daughter, he wrote down a few words on a yellow Post-it note — "closure," ''please" and "exonerated."
A few hours later, carrying his belongings in plastic bags, Sledge emerged from a North Carolina jail, saying he was looking forward to what most people consider the most mundane of activities: "Going home. Relaxing. Sleeping in a real bed. Probably get in a pool of water and swim for a little while."
A special three-judge panel unanimously voted Sledge had proven he was innocent of the killings and ordered his release.
But his freedom almost didn't happen because evidence had been lost for years.
His attorney, Christine Mumma, took the case in 2004 and felt like she had been running out of options and considered closing the case in 2012. Then court clerks discovered a misplaced envelope of evidence while cleaning out a high shelf of a 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 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.
In 2013, the case was referred to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, the only state-run investigative agency of its kind. So far, Sledge is the eighth person exonerated after an investigation by the commission, which started operating in 2007. It has reviewed and closed about 1,500 cases.
Nationwide, The Innocence Project said there have been 325 post-conviction DNA exonerations.
The North Carolina commission found there was enough evidence of Sledge's innocence to refer it to a panel of three judges, who were appointed by the state Supreme Court.
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, 74-year-old Josephine Davis and her 57-year-old daughter, Aileen, were stabbed to death in September 1976. Aileen was also sexually assaulted.
They were found in their home in Elizabethtown, a day after Sledge had escaped from a prison work farm where he was serving a four-year sentence for larceny.
Sledge was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Katherine Brown, the granddaughter and niece of the victims, said Friday during the hearing that the women were humble and considerate people who looked after other family members.
During her statement, Brown said the family was "shocked that it will become an unsolved mystery" after years of believing they had some closure. She didn't directly address Sledge's innocence in her statement.
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."
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