(Reuters) - A man imprisoned for nearly four decades for the 1976 stabbing deaths of a mother and daughter in North Carolina was declared innocent on Friday by a three-judge panel, local media reported.
Joseph Sledge, 70, is the eighth inmate exonerated of criminal charges following reviews by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. The state agency, the first of its kind in the United States, has investigated hundreds of innocence claims since it was created by North Carolina lawmakers in 2006.
Sledge was sentenced to life in prison after a jury found him guilty of killing Josephine Davis and her adult daughter, Aileen Davis, in their home in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, in September 1976.
He had maintained his innocence. The day before the murders he had escaped from a nearby prison where he was serving time for stealing, but had no history of violence, said his attorneys at the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.
DNA testing in 2012 showed hairs found at the crime scene, and believed to belong to the killer, did not come from Sledge, according to his attorneys.
After hearing his case in December, the state's innocence commission concluded there was enough evidence suggesting Sledge was not guilty to warrant further review by a three-judge panel.
At a hearing on Friday in Whiteville, the local district attorney apologized to Sledge and vowed to reopen the case to determine the true killer, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.
The newspaper said Sledge will be entitled to $750,000 in compensation from the state for his wrongful incarceration.
Sledge's attorneys could not be immediately reached for comment.
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Sandra Maler)