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Does Latest NC Exoneration Highlight a Troubling Trend?

PHOTO: 2014 saw a record 125 people exonerated. The case of Joseph Sledge, set free after 38 years in prison, calls attention to what some in North Carolina see as the need to address flaws in the justice system. Photo credit: Luigi Caterino/Flickr.
PHOTO: 2014 saw a record 125 people exonerated. The case of Joseph Sledge, set free after 38 years in prison, calls attention to what some in North Carolina see as the need to address flaws in the justice system. Photo credit: Luigi Caterino/Flickr.
February 2, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. – The recent exoneration of Joseph Sledge in North Carolina is just one of dozens nationally in the past year, and a case that some say highlights the need for legal system reforms.

Sledge spent 38 years behind bars for murder before missing evidence led to his release.

It's a story similar to those of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, both of whom were exonerated in September after 30 years in prison.

Vernetta Alston, an attorney who represented McCollum, calls it a troubling trend.

"In Joseph Sledge's case, we're seeing the same things that we saw in McCollum and Brown,” she points out. “Evidence was mishandled, these guys were manipulated, and snitch testimony was allowed in.

“And it's a huge problem across our system, and one that lawmakers need to think about doing something about."

McCollum was on death row when he was exonerated, and Alston says if Sledge had been there, he could have been executed by now.

She maintains many older cases should be re-examined, and that greater accountability is needed in law enforcement and crime labs.

According to a new report, 2014 saw a record 125 exonerations nationally.

Kristin Collins, associate director of communications with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, says murder convictions should be built on fair trials and iron-clad evidence.

But she says that's often not the case, and explains that during Sledge's trial in 1978, there was overt racism and evidence was ignored.

"These cases, they're just so sloppy a lot of times, and the idea that we could execute people or keep them in prison for life – we need a better system if we're going to do that," she stresses.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission was launched in 2006. Alston says it's been instrumental in examining post-conviction claims.

"An innocence inquiry commission just has such tremendous subpoena power, in terms of being able to get records and compel agencies to turn over evidence and records in a way that we simply can't, through the legal process," she states.

Sledge is the eighth person exonerated by the commission. Alston says there are many more cases awaiting investigation than the commission can handle.


Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - NC