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 / Updated  / Source: Associated Press

WHITEVILLE, N.C. — For the first time in nearly 40 years, Joseph Sledge woke up behind bars with a chance of becoming a free man. The 70-year-old needed one more win at an innocence hearing.

Three judges listened to closing statements Friday about how Sledge was wrongfully convicted in the 1976 stabbing deaths of a mother and her adult daughter. A few hours later, carrying his belongings in plastic bags, Sledge emerged from a North Carolina jail, saying he was looking forward to what most people consider the most mundane of activities: "Going home. Relaxing. Sleeping in a real bed. Probably get in a pool of water and swim for a little while."

Christine Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, left, and Cheryl Sullivan, staff attorney, hug Joseph Sledge after a special session of superior court in Whiteville, N.C., in which the wrongly-convicted man was freed after nearly 40 years behind bars.Ethan Hyman / The News & Observer via AP

A special three-judge panel unanimously voted Sledge had proven he was innocent of the killings and ordered his release. But his freedom almost didn't happen because evidence had been lost for years. His attorney, Christine Mumma, took the case in 2004 and considered closing the case in 2012. Then court clerks discovered a misplaced envelope of evidence while cleaning out a high shelf of a vault. The envelope contained hair, found on the victim and believed to be the attacker's. Meghan Clement of Cellmark Forensics said none of the evidence collected from the scene — hair, DNA and fingerprints — belonged to Sledge.

The victims, 74-year-old Josephine Davis and her 57-year-old daughter, Aileen, were stabbed to death in September 1976. Aileen was also sexually assaulted. Sledge was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. After his release, Sledge was headed to Savannah, Georgia, to live with family. He told reporters he never doubted he'd be freed someday. "I had confidence in my own self. The self will and the patience," he said before trailing off and searching for the right word. "Patience is the word."

Joseph Sledge, center, talks with his sister Barbara and brother Oscar during a break as a three-judge panel takes up his claim of innocence in Whiteville, N.C., on Friday.Ethan Hyman / The News & Observer via AP


— The Associated Press