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This week in innocence: Joseph Sledge and James Hugney Sr.

Two more men were exonerated last week, long after they’d been convicted of serious crimes. Between them, they served about 75 years in prison. First up is Joseph Sledge in North Carolina.

 A 70-year-old man wrongly convicted of the 1976 stabbing deaths of a mother and daughter walked out of prison Friday, saying he was looking forward to sleeping in a real bed and maybe swimming in a pool.
After serving nearly four decades behind bars, Joseph Sledge was found innocent by a three-judge panel who heard testimony from a DNA expert. The expert said none of the evidence collected in the case – hair, DNA and fingerprints – belonged to Sledge.
A key jailhouse informant had also recanted his story, saying authorities promised him leniency in his own case for his trial testimony against Sledge.
A district attorney who was not originally involved apologized to Sledge and promised to reopen the investigation.
“The system has made a mistake,” district attorney Jon David said.
After the judges’ decision was announced, Sledge was still for a moment, then hugged his lawyer and family members. Soon after, he walked out of the Columbus County Detention Center, spoke to reporters and got in a car with family members.
They were headed to Savannah, Georgia, where Sledge was set to live with one of his brothers.
Asked what he was looking forward to doing, he replied: “Going home. Relaxing. Sleeping in a real bed. Probably get in a pool of water and swim.”

The man is 70. He has spent 38 of those years in prison. And he was innocent. North Carolina offers $50,000 per year of imprisonment for the wrongly convicted. Under that law, Sledge would be entitled to $1.9 million, although the law caps compensation at $750,000. But it will at least be a lump sum payment. In some states, Sledge would have to settle for $50,000 per year until he dies, at which point the payments would stop. (And many states have no compensation statutes at all.)

Last week’s other exoneree is James Hugney Sr., who spent more than 35 years in prison due to junk science testimony about arson.

According to a release from The McShane Firm, James Hugney, Sr. was released from prison Friday after spending 35 years, 11 months and eight days in prison. Hugney was convicted in July 1979 after a jury found him guilty of setting a fire at his Susquehanna Township home that caused the death of [his] 16-year-old son. The fire was Aug. 20, 1978 at Hugney’s home at 1625 Bamberger Road.
The case at the time was called the “burning bed” case. Investigators said Hugney poured lighter fluid around the bed of his son, James Hugney, Jr., while the boy was sleeping. Hugney then set the house on fire, causing his son to suffer burns on 98 percent of his body, investigators testified at the time. Hugney, Jr., died five days after the fire.
As part of Hugney’s release, he made an Alfred Plea to third degree murder in the case. As part of the plea, he continued to maintain he was not guilty. An Alfred Plea is a type of deal reached with existing prosecutors that allows a person convicted of a crime to be released from prison on the agreed to charges and given credit for time served.
At trial, three prosecution experts testified Hugney’s actions were arson because of the “characteristic pour patterns around the bed” of his son. Prosecution testimony also relied on analysis of charred parts of the bedroom which “were characteristic of hydrocarbons.” . . .
“The pivotal scientific evidence of negative corpus had been debunked,” McShane said in a news release. “All of the scientific evidence used in the case was based on popularly held beliefs and myths of the time that modern science has totally refuted.” Through the retention of three internationally known fire scientists, their analysis of the methods used in the Hugney conviction were shown to not stand with modern science. In their reports filed with the court, the three investigators could [not] conclude that the fire was an arson using modern practices for fire science.

Pennsylvania is one of the states that has no compensation law at all. But Hugney’s Alford plea would have prevented him from collecting even in states that do. But the Alford plea was probably the best he was going to get. If these courts and prosecutors were truly interested in justice, they’d release and exonerate anyone convicted solely on expert testimony that is later proven to be scientifically invalid. In reality, once you’ve been convicted, the burden is then on you to prove your innocence.

It’s frightening how often these cases turn on chance. If you were “lucky” enough to have been wrongly convicted in a case involving DNA before the onset of DNA testing, you might have a shot at fully clearing your name. But if you were convicted in a crime where DNA wasn’t a factor, or a case like this one where the question is whether a crime was committed at all, you have a much tougher road to freedom. And you’ll probably never be completely cleared, much less compensated.

Related: My argument for why we should have bifurcated trials in cases such as Hugney’s, in which the jury is asked to decide not only who committed the crime, but also whether a crime was committed at all.