Thursday, November 14, 2013 11:06 PM
Judge recuses self from murder case
By Olivia Neeley | Times Staff Writer
After waiting 37 years for a hearing Charles Ray Finch hoped would set him free, Thursday’s court proceedings came to an abrupt halt. And Finch is still waiting.
A Wilson County judge recused himself from an evidentiary hearing in the murder conviction of Finch.
The decision came after Finch’s attorney began to question a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who was a lead investigator into the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office corruption case in the 1970s.
Superior Court Judge Milton F. Fitch Jr. represented several people during that time period in connection with the federal case and grand jury proceedings, he said. Fitch told the court that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to oversee the hearing after having peripheral involvement in representing those at the time.
"In the interest of justice, I was close enough to the matters ...,” Fitch said Thursday. He also said it was in the best interest of the court for him to remove himself and that he didn’t even want the "appearance of impropriety.”
"I made this disclosure on my own,” Fitch told the court. In an evidentiary hearing, a judge rules on the matters based on the evidence presented.
"This is where I stand,” he told lawyers about his decision.
This hearing began Wednesday in the murder conviction of Finch, who is currently serving a life sentence in the killing of Richard "Shadow” Holloman, who was gunned down after a failed robbery attempt inside his country store located on U.S. 117 in Black Creek on Feb. 13, 1976.
Finch, who is now 75, has spent the past 37 years in prison for a killing he has always maintained he didn’t commit. After a decade-long investigation into Finch’s case, Duke’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic spent Wednesday laying out its case on why Finch’s conviction should be overturned.
A new judge will be now be assigned to the case.
"Ray is disappointed,” said Attorney Jamie Lau, who is part of Finch’s defense team. "We are all very disappointed. We thought Wednesday’s evidence clearly showed the injustices that occurred in Ray’s case. But unfortunately we have to wait for another judge to decide. This is obviously a shock to us.”
Lau said it’s too early to know when the next hearing will be scheduled.
"We will obviously push to have the hearing as quickly as possible,” he said.
Wilson County District Attorney Robert Evans said Thursday as soon as "practical we will work to position the case for rehearing.”
"We remain firm in the belief that the issues raised by the defendant require a full airing in a court of law,” Evans said. "While disappointed with today’s sudden halt to the proceedings, we fully support the judge’s determination as to why it was necessary.”
On Thursday morning, David Rudolf, one of Finch’s attorneys, began questioning former FBI agent Lin Jordan, who lead the investigation into the corruption in the sheriff’s office in the late 70s.
The defense also introduced an FBI report.
Jordan said the investigation began after a madam of a local prostitution house told the FBI that she gave payoffs to the sheriff’s office for protection of her business. Jordan said the FBI worked on the investigation for more than a year, interviewing up to 40 witnesses. He told the court that agents spent a minimum of 3,000 man hours on the federal case.
Rudolf asked Jordan if he could tell the court the general level of corruption.
"Up until that time, it was the most pervasive of law enforcement corruption I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Rudolf asked Jordan as a result of the investigation what he determined about former Chief Deputy Tony Owens’ alleged involvement in the corruption case.
Jordan said according to the information provided by witnesses at the time, it was alleged that Owens was involved in protection of prostitution, illegal gambling and drugs. However, a federal jury acquitted Owens on charges of accepting payoffs to protect a gambling operation and lying to a federal grand jury, which was conducting the investigation of illegal activities in Wilson County.
Former Sheriff W. Robin Pridgen during that time period was found guilty on federal charges of racketeering activity and income tax evasion. Shortly into Jordan’s testimony, Fitch abruptly stopped and asked to see lawyers in his chambers.
Less than 15 minutes later, Fitch announced his decision to the court.
Finch’s defense team leaned in to explain to him what had happened. Family members appeared distraught, but some said they understood why Fitch made the decision.
"We’re not going to give up,” said Finch’s son, Calvin Jones. "We’re not going to start now.”
Jones said he was looking forward to the hearing being complete and had hoped to bring his father home due to the holidays approaching. Jones was 6 years old when his father went to prison, he said.
"The sooner he comes home the better I will feel,” he said.
Fitch allowed Finch’s family members to see him individually again on Thursday. Jones said he was able to talk and hug his father.
"He said, ‘I knew it. I knew something would come up like this,’” Jones said about their discussion. But Jones said his father told him, "Hold on. We’re going to be all right.”
Duke brought some heavy hitters to Wilson, including a nationally recognized expert in eyewitness memory whose expertise in the subject was used when North Carolina developed a lineup procedure and Eyewitness Identification Act law in 2007 and Raleigh attorney Joseph B. Cheshire V, part of the team that cleared former Duke University lacrosse players, testified as an expert criminal defense attorney. Finch’s defense team includes David Rudolf, who has defended clients including Rae Carruth and Michael Peterson.
Wednesday testimony included Owens, former Wilson County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy and lead investigator in the case, an SBI agent with N.C. State Crime Lab and former district attorney David Williams.
©The Wilson Times, Wilson, North Carolina.
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