Crime & Courts

From both sides in Joseph Sledge case, the passing years mean fading memories

As Herman Baker tells it, nearly 40 years ago, he told some lies that derailed another man’s life.

Now that man’s fate could be, once again, in Baker’s hands.

Baker offered the decisive testimony against Joseph Sledge in 1978, providing a detailed account to a jury that Sledge had killed a mother and daughter in rural Bladen County. He painted Sledge as a racist who believed his victims were “she-devils” who must be killed. The two had been in prison together in 1977.

Sledge, 70, has spent more than half his life in prison for a crime he insists he didn’t commit. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is meeting this week to review Sledge’s claim of innocence.

On Wednesday, Baker, 64, limped into the hearing room, breathing heavily and coughing into his fist. Baker is an Air Force veteran with post traumatic stress disorder who has battled addiction to drugs and alcohol. During his testimony, Baker clutched his stomach in pain from chronic pancreatitis. His versions of the story have continued to vary, but he insists that he lied at trial when he said Sledge had told him he committed the murders.

“I’m twisted up,” Baker told the commission as he struggled to speak.

Sledge’s appeal includes files located in the past two years containing evidence of another possible suspect; Sledge’s trial attorney said he didn’t receive that information before trial. The only physical evidence suggesting Sledge had anything to do with the homicides – pubic hair left on the exposed abdomen of one of the women – belongs to someone else, DNA tests showed in 2012.

Commissioners searched for the truth Wednesday amid shifting testimony and fading memories. Two law enforcement officers who investigated the murders of Josephine and Ailene Davis 40 years ago struggled to recall details from their work.

One clear memory

Phillip Little, the Bladen County sheriff’s detective who led the investigation, couldn’t recall much about the characters and timeline of events from the investigation. Henry Poole, a retired agent from the State Bureau of Investigation, testified he couldn’t speak to much of anything beyond what he had filed in reports during that time.

When asked why Baker received a $3,000 reward for his testimony, Poole exhaled.

“I do not recall, honest to God,” said Poole.

Both Little and Poole, who went to Pennsylvania to pick up Baker to testify at trial, deny feeding information to Baker to offer as testimony against Sledge.

Little’s notes were scant. His memory had largely faded. But Little said he did remember clearly a conversation with Sledge in 1976.

He described Sledge sitting in the back of a patrol car after Little and another deputy drove him to the crime scene. Little said Sledge, unprompted, pointed to the women’s home, then spoke, displaying knowledge of the crime scene.

“He said, ‘A black guy didn’t kill those old women. It had to be a white guy. A black guy wouldn’t have cut them up like that,’ ” Little said.

Little retired several years ago after more than 35 years with the Bladen County sheriff’s office. The murders hit him hard as a young detective. He hadn’t handled many such cases, especially one so gruesome. And the women were his neighbors.

Little expressed regret that he didn’t have more to rely on when he talked about the case so many years later. At the end of his testimony, he shrugged and smiled.

“I’m sorry, it’s been so long,” he said.

‘It was wrong’

Since 2013, Baker has recanted his 1978 trial testimony implicating Sledge in the murders. He has said, at points, that prison guards lured him out of solitary confinement and promised him early release if he told the jurors that Sledge had committed the murder. At other points, he said that detectives coached him on what to say.

Baker is unwavering, however, on one point: Sledge never told him that he committed murder.

“I wish I’d never did it,” Baker said Wednesday, referring to his 1978 testimony. “It was wrong. If I’d known better then, I wouldn’t have done it.”

Baker began trying to undo his 1978 testimony after Christine Mumma, Sledge’s attorney and director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, found him in 2013 and told him about the DNA evidence that showed the pubic hair didn’t belong to Sledge.

It threw me off real bad. It made me think real hard,” Baker told commission investigator Sharon Stellato, according to a transcript of the interview she read aloud Wednesday.

The commission will continue to hear evidence through the week. Forensic scientists, as well as Sledge, are expected to testify later this week. If the commission members believe Sledge’s claim of innocence is credible, three judges will be appointed to determine whether he should be exonerated.