On September 5, 1976, Joseph Sledge, a 34-year-old African-American man, escaped from White Lake Prison Camp in North Carolina, where he was serving a four-year sentence for larceny.
Not more than 24 hours later, authorities found Josephine Davis and her daughter, Aileen, murdered in their home in Elizabethtown, N.C. Although police found only tenuous evidence linking Joseph to the crime, a jury convicted him of second degree murder, and he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, due in critical part, to the false testimonies of Joseph’s fellow inmates.
Wrongfully convicted, he was sent to Columbus County (N.C.) Detention Center to serve two consecutive life sentences.
Sledge is one of many who have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life without parole, but one of the relative few who are ever exonerated. He was set free in 2015, thanks to the work of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, after DNA testing proved him “factually innocent.”
Watch a YouTube video of Sledge’s release here.
At the time he received an apology from the local District Attorney (who was not the prosecutor during the original trial, saying “There’s nothing worse for a prosecutor than convicting an innocent person.”
Ironically, if Sledge had been sentenced to death he might have had a chance to win his freedom earlier. (North Carolina reinstated capital punishment in 1977, but only for first degree murder.)
A study by the National Academy of Sciences found that death row inmates’ exoneration is due to increased scrutiny of death penalty cases.
Death penalty defendants automatically receive additional procedural remedies that other defendants do not. For example, in Washington State, before 2018, defendants facing the death penalty were given the opportunity for courts to consider mitigating circumstances to change a sentence from death to something less, like life without parole.
After 2018, consideration of mitigating circumstances disappeared when Washington State Supreme Court, in State v. Gregory, ended death sentences in that state.
Needless to say, there is no guarantee that the innocent on death row will get justice.
According to Prof. Brandon Garrett , now at the Duke University School of Law, conservative estimates show that death row convictions only get it right 95.9 percent of the time. The other 4.1 percent await an unjust execution.
But the judiciary have taken notice of the implications of Washington’s abolition of the death penalty.
The late Justice Antonin Scalia argued that potentially innocent defendants facing the death penalty had 130 times better chance for achieving exoneration than their counterparts who faced life without the possibility of parole.
If wrongful conviction rates for defendants facing life sentences are unknowable, how might we combat convictions of the innocent?
States like Missouri have offered new legislation that allows defendants over the age of 65, who have been sentenced to life without parole, to receive a parole hearing after serving 30 years of their sentence.
Such a bill might have saved Joseph Sledge, who served 36 years before exoneration, invaluable years of his life.
Other states, like West Virginia, have taken a preemptive approach, integrating consideration of a defendant’s individualized circumstances into their sentencing procedure. For the wrongfully convicted, another opportunity to plead their case provides an additional remedial measure and something even more important: hope.
After a conviction that imposes mandatory life without the possibility of parole, defendants have an opportunity for a judge or jury to consider factors specific to the defendant to ensure fair sentencing.
The National Registry of Exonerations has tracked 2,589 exonerations amounting to over 20,000 years of freedom lost since 1967. Now that we know wrongfully convicted defendants are likely to face life without the possibility of parole, courts cannot mandatorily impose such a sentence without considering the notion that some of these decisions are wrong.
Washington would be wise to follow the lead of states like West Virginia and require that every defendant be given an opportunity to have their circumstances considered before sentencing them to mandatory life without the possibility of parole.
We have a moral obligation to protect the innocent from outcomes like Joseph Sledge’s.
Spencer Satin is a second-year law student at Seattle University School of Law. In his free time, he volunteers for legal assistance projects to help those impacted by the coronavirus secure temporary financial relief. He is also a local musician and pianist and enjoys recording hip-hop music with his band The Good Husbands.