For the third time in six months, a North Carolina inmate was exonerated by DNA evidence and freed after spending decades in prison for a wrongful murder conviction, the Associated Press reports. Joseph Sledge, 70, was freed Friday after a three-judge panel found him innocent of killing a mother and daughter in 1976. The hearing was called after an investigation by the state’s one-of-a kind investigative panel on innocence. The lawyer who took his case in 2004, Christine Mumma, had been on the verge of closing it 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 became 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. In 2013, the case was referred to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, the only state-run investigative agency of its kind. 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.