Wednesday, January 23, 2013 12:10 AM
Innocence Project contends Wilson man wrongfully imprisoned for 36 years
By Olivia Neeley | Times Staff Writer
Charles Ray Finch has spent the last 36 years in prison for a killing he always maintained he didn’t commit.
The Duke Law Innocence Project launched a decade-long investigation uncovering new evidence that advocates say should now free Finch, 74, from the walls that have imprisoned him.
On Tuesday, a Motion for Appropriate Relief was filed in Wilson County on behalf of Finch asking the court to overturn his conviction.
"I think this is a total miscarriage of justice,” said James Coleman Jr., the John S. Bradway professor of the Practice of Law at Duke University School of Law, co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic and faculty adviser to the Duke Innocence Project. "That’s how we all feel.”
The Duke Law Innocence Project is a volunteer student organization that works to exonerate those who have been wrongfully convicted by investigating claims of innocence. Coleman, who oversees the Finch investigation, filed the motion and also hand-delivered a separate copy to the district attorney’s office, which was previously informed about the filing, he said.
Richard Lynn Holloman, 46, was gunned down in his grocery store on U.S. 117 near Black Creek the night of Feb. 13, 1976.
Holloman and an employee, who would later be the alleged eyewitness to the crime for prosecutors, were closing up the store when three black men approached them, according to trial transcripts. One the men asked if he could buy an Alka-Seltzer. Holloman asked the man if he needed water and a paper cup for it. That’s when another man answered "yes, and your money, too.”
One of the men pulled out a sawed-off shotgun from beneath his coat and began to fire, according to original court testimony. Holloman shot back. He later died of as result of his injuries and the three men fled without the money they intended to steal that night. The employee was not injured during the incident.
Finch, a regular customer at the store, was driving by the store on his way home, according to previous published reports. He stopped by after he saw the commotion outside the store that night. Hours later, Finch and another man were arrested in connection with the attempted robbery and killing. Finch, who was questioned by deputies, also agreed to a line up where the eyewitness identified him as the shooter. A second suspect, who was initially charged, was released after the state dismissed the charges two years later.
‘IT IS POSSIBLE’
This summer, Coleman and the Innocent Project met with Wilson County District Attorney Robert A. Evans and other officials asking them to review the new evidence they found throughout their 10-year-investigation. They also asked Evans to join them in obtaining judicial relief in Finch’s wrongful conviction.
Evans wrote to them in mid-October, saying he reviewed their "materials” and met and interviewed the lawyers who were assistants in the office at the time Finch’s case was tried.
"Obviously, the issues raised in your materials would be cause for serious concern in any criminal trial,” Evans wrote. "Looking at them in their totality, one could reasonably argue that it is possible Mr. Finch did not commit this crime. In fact, that argument is ably presented in your documentation.”
Evans also wrote that in considering their request, "I cannot ignore the fact that this case was tried to a jury, which found Mr. Finch guilty as charged.”
He said the question for him now, some 36 years later, is whether the "inferences and conclusions in your material are sufficient to persuade us to join with your organization in seeking relief for Mr. Finch.”
Evans continued to write that at this point in the process, that he would have to "respectfully decline” to seek relief jointly.
"While I readily concede the troubling aspects of this case as outlined in your material, I am not persuaded that they amount to objectively verifiable proof of actual innocence,” he wrote.
Evans also wrote that during their conversations between he and the Innocence Project that it was suggested they would be pursuing litigation to the case examined.
"Certainly, we stand ready to cooperate in all respects as this matter works its way through the system,” he wrote. "Moreover, should new information develop as this case proceeds, we will be open to reconsidering our current position in this matter.”
The Innocence Project contends that in light of the new evidence filed with Tuesday’s motion, Finch’s case would have "more likely than not” gone to a Wilson County jury. If the case had gone to a jury, "no reasonable juror would have found Finch guilty of murder,” according to the motion.
Less than five months after Finch’s arrest, he was on trial for his life inside a Wilson County courtroom. The capital murder trial lasted four days, which included a long jury selection process. After about an hour and half of deliberations, a jury convicted Finch of first-degree murder in Holloman’s death. A day later, a judge sentenced him to die via gas chamber on Oct. 4, 1976.
On the same day Finch was sentenced to death, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina’s mandatory death penalty law was unconstitutional. Finch’s sentence was later commuted to a life sentence.
The motion states Finch was sentenced to death as a "result of false, tainted and misleading evidence, which led a jury to wrongfully convict him.”
The evidence they contend that led to his conviction was due to several things, including a "rush to judgment” by a former Wilson County sheriff’s deputy who considered Finch a suspect on the night of the murder, although "he had no reason for doing so,” according to the motion.
The state’s key witness, who was not injured in the shooting that night, misidentified Finch as the killer in an improper lineup, the motion contends.
During the trial, the state’s theory was that Finch killed Holloman with a sawed-off shotgun, which was fired at close range. That theory was based on the eyewitness account of the shooting, according to the motion.
"There is now indisputable evidence, withheld from the defense, that Holloman died from multiple gunshot wounds and not a shotgun wound,” the motion read. The state also suppressed evidence that the sole eyewitness had also identified another man as involved in Holloman’s death, according to court documents.
The day after Finch told deputies that same man had confessed to him that he killed Holloman, deputies showed the eyewitness a picture line up with several mug shots, which included the man, Finch said had confessed to him. The eyewitness identified that man as a second person involved in the incident that night. The state never disclosed that evidence to the defense, the judge or to the jury, according to the motion. No one else was ever tried in the case.
The state’s evidence in 1976 included an eyewitness, an autopsy report, a No. 1 Buck shotgun shell found in Finch’s car and the testimony of a man who said he may have seen Finch outside Holloman’s store within an hour of the murder, contradicting the testimony of Finch’s alibi witnesses, who said he was playing cards and drinking with friends at the time of Holloman’s death.
Now that the motion has been filed, a judge will order a response. That’s when the Wilson County District Attorney’s office will have a certain amount of time to respond to the filed motion.
"What we would like them to do is avoid all of that by having the district attorney’s office review what we found and meet with us to discuss it to see if there are any issues that really require litigation, which we’ve done in our other cases,” Coleman said.
The Innocence Project has exonerated four people in the last two years.
If prosecutors look at the motion and the evidence and agree with them, litigation won’t be necessary, officials said.
"That’s what we hope will happen here,” Coleman said.
But if that doesn’t happen, the Innocence Project will ask for an evidentiary hearing and then litigate whatever legal issues prosecutors raise in regards to the case, he added.
"They may raise some legal issues we may have to litigate before the hearing,” he said. "If they decide to go that way, that’s the way will go.”
While Tuesday’s filing was 10 years in the making, Coleman said now is not the time to celebrate.
The only day he and others with the Innocence Project will celebrate is when the man they believe is innocent returns home.
Later this week, the Wilson Times will begin the series "Unraveling a loose thread” which will take the reader from the murder to the witness stand and what the Innocence Project uncovered during its investigation.
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