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In "Under the Microscope: The FBI Hair Cases," Fault Lines looks at how, for decades, the FBI used the flawed forensic method of microscopic hair analysis to convict thousands of criminal defendants. The film airs on Monday, August 17, at 10 pm Eastern time/7 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.
In 1978 Joseph Sledge was sentenced to a North Carolina prison for the murder of two women, Josephine and Ailene Davis, a mother and daughter who were stabbed to death two years earlier. This past January, he was set free when new DNA evidence contradicted FBI hair analysis that pinpointed Sledge as the assailant.
For decades, the FBI relied on matching characteristics of hair under a microscope to connect suspects to crimes, most often violent ones. But the introduction of DNA-based techniques suggest that the science the government labs relied on was inexact, at best, and, at worst, pseudo-science.
In the course of Sledge’s appeal, led by attorney Christine Mumma of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, the testimony connecting Sledge’s hair to one found at the scene of the crime was invalidated. And after 37 years in jail, Sledge became a free man.
Fault Lines sat down with Sledge in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, to discuss his extraordinary story and the evidence that led to his conviction. An edited version of the conversation follows:
Fault Lines: Do you have a good idea of how you were ever charged with the crime of killing these two women?
Joseph Sledge: My personal opinion is that they made me the scapegoat because they had no one to blame. And being that I had been an escapee from the prison unit when these two ladies were killed, they kind of fixed it in a manner to make me look like the perpetrator.
Is that just some of worst luck in the world that during the very time that you've escaped, there's a gory double murder in the same area at the same time?
That's been said not only by you but by other newspaper folks. I wish I could rewrite history myself but that was the way it happened.
Had you escaped one day later, they wouldn't have even thought of you.
Can you tell us what kind of jail you escaped from, why you were in that jail and then why you escaped?
I was in that prison doing misdemeanor time for receiving stolen goods.
What did you receive?
It was some stolen property that I had purchased. And the judges sentenced me to four years in prison. During the Labor Day holiday, you know, I got that freedom bug in me and got to thinking and jumped the fence that day and left a four-year sentence.
[Editors note: Sledge was serving a four-year sentence in minimum custody for larceny and receiving stolen goods, as well as a six-month sentence for a previous escape.]
Did you have a good reason to escape out of there?
Well, I had a confrontation with a guy in there. They bussed him back because he was doing felony time. So after the confrontation with the guy, they put him back on the unit, the same unit. It would've been different had they put him on another unit.
You were scared of that guy?
I didn't want no more confrontations with him, verbally or physically.
How'd you get caught?
I was arrested. I was sighted at a gas station, and the authorities told me to get out, and I did. And that's when they knew that I was the suspect from prison.
And so did you go to a more serious prison after that?
They locked me up in prison for months. Then they took me to court and gave me time in solitary.
You were in solitary?
Yeah because the investigation for the murders had been going on. And I was a suspect.
Did you know you were a suspect?
Well, it was all in the news. It was all in the local news.
He said that the pubic hair was microscopically similar to mine—microscopically similar.
The police reportedly found pubic hair, but they also found hair from a man’s head that they said came from the same person. Did you have hair on your head?
No, sir. I did not.
So then this seems kind of open and shut. How did they make a case out of that?
Well, that's the cleverness of the state lawyers.
There was other evidence too, right? There were bloody fingerprints, a bloody palm print ...
Yes, sir. All that was negative to me.
None of those matched you?
There were shoe marks.
Did they match you?
But in court, did they say that the hair was yours? An FBI agent testified. What did he say?
It was an FBI agent from the FBI forensic laboratory. He said that he couldn't say conclusive that the hairs belong to me, but he said they were microscopically similar to mine. He gave an elaborate explanation on the hair evidence. He said that hair evidence doesn’t constitute personal positive identification, as do fingerprints. And he gave an elaborate explanation that the hairs that was found were microscopically similar to mine or could've came from somebody of the same origin as myself.
He said that the pubic hair was microscopically similar to mine—microscopically similar. Along with the testimony from the witness and the findings of that hair and saying what he said to the jury, that persuaded them to believe that I was the perpetrator in the case.
And the microscopically similar hairs included both pubic hair and head hair?
A pubic hair.
What about the head hair they found?
His elaboration on the head hairs is that I hadn't enough hair on my head to take any hair.
So did that come up at trial that they have hair from someone's head, and you don't have hair on your head?
Listen, at that time, you got an investigation saying that evidence was recovered from the crime scene that were left by the perp. That evidence was the head hair, the pubic hair, etc. Alright, so they know it ain’t me. They know that.
So aside from the hair, the only thing the prosecution had were jailhouse informants being paid by the government?
You didn't match any of the physical evidence?
No. I became the scapegoat after nearly two years of investigation.
How influential do you think that FBI agent was with the jury?
He was persuasive enough to, along the testimony of the witnesses, lead the court to believe that I was guilty.
What was going through your mind when you heard him say that the hair was microscopically similar to your hair?
I thought it was a set up. I thought it was a frame job working there. I really did. I really thought it was the whole time. I thought from day one it was a set up, man. I thought I was being set up.
Two life sentences running consecutive. You can't do but one. Can't do two. But they gave me life for each body.
And then how long did you end up spending in prison?
I say 37 years exactly.
When did you first ask for someone to review the DNA in your case?
When DNA became law in North Carolina in 2003, that's when I filed a petition through the courts for DNA testing. According to the law, like the judge said, I had a right. He asked the agencies that were involved in investigating these murders to turn in all the evidence for DNA testing. So they played around and played around, and I wrote the court and asked the judge what was the hold up on the case about testing this investigation with this DNA? He wrote me later and said he did all he could, he looked and everything, he wrote all the agencies and requested for them to turn over the evidence.
By 2005, that's when I wrote Ms. Mumma a letter, the North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence. I told them that I was a requesting for DNA testing for a case at the court. And they said have you been appointed a lawyer? And I said no ma'am. So they gave me a lawyer, Ms. Mumma, she appointed a lawyer to the case.
I also wrote North Carolina prison's legal service. The prison legal service, I told them about the case and all this. The legal service says, “We see that your case is being studied by the North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence.” A couple of days later, Ms. Mumma wrote me a letter personally and told me, she said, don't write nobody else. I'm taking your case personally.
When Ms. Mumma took your case, personally, is that when you felt like you might get the justice you deserved?
When the DNA proved that the pubic hairs weren't mine. That was what really persuaded the Innocence Inquiry Commission into further investigation in the case. They wouldn't be wasting their time and energy and the expenditures on what they had to do.
They was given executive clemency to go into jails, sheriff's departments, open files and go into their evidence without anybody's permission. And then I, one day, this is when they went into the files and found those elimination prints, which really put icing on it, along with the DNA and all that. Now the question is, why weren't those elimination prints presented at my trial to prove the findings?
So what was it like walking into that court to be officially cleared of this crime?
When I had to stand up before the court, and explain to the family members of the deceased that I was sorry for what had transpired, you know, and that I was the scapegoat in this matter. I hope y'all understand what they did to me to get me convicted and made you people think that I was the actual perpetrator. But I'm so glad that science had proved what it can prove and get my name cleared in the eyes of the law. The eyes of God already knew, but in the eyes of man I was still guilty.
Until they cleared you?
Until they cleared me, yeah.
Do you find it surprising that hair analysis is still accepted in courts today?
That should be abolished. They should abolish that immediately because it's not reliable.
Has North Carolina compensated you for all the time they've taken away?
No they're working on it though. Yeah they're working on it. The justice system has a slow moving, systematic way of doing what they do.
What can the state of North Carolina do to make this right?
Give me 40 years.
Give you 40 years?
Yeah, of my life. That'd be great. I could use that. But they cannot give me 40 years of my life back to me. They can't do it. It's impossible.