Friday, February 14, 2014 10:43 PM
Uncovering files took years in murder case
By Olivia Neeley | Times Staff Writer
Duke attorneys have spent years trying to obtain any files and evidence related to Charles Ray Finch’s murder case from the state. And just days before Finch’s November evidentiary hearing, his defense team finally got their hands on a State Bureau Investigation ballistics report they had no knowledge of for more than a decade.
That ballistics report was another piece of evidence, Finch’s attorneys say, that was withheld from his defense attorney during the 1976 trial.
Finch is currently serving a life sentence in the killing of Richard "Shadow” Holloman, who was gunned down during a failed robbery attempt inside his country store in Black Creek in 1976. Friday marked 38 years in the killing as well as the arrest of Finch, whose birthday is on the same day. He turned 76.
Both prosecutors and Finch’s attorneys have battled the case through motions, court filings and hearings in the past year after the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic filed a Motion for Appropriate Relief. Both parties recently filed court briefs laying out their case as well as responses to each other’s arguments. A newly appointed judge who will decide Finch’s fate ordered those briefs. While officials say they don’t know when that decision will happen, the judge could decide to hear oral arguments by both sides.
Prosecutors’ evidence during the 1976 trial included a No. 1 Buck shotgun shell. Jurors were allowed to examine the buckshot allegedly found in Finch’s blue Cadillac and a piece of lead allegedly removed from Holloman’s body during his autopsy. Lester Floyd Jones, the sole eyewitness to the killing, claimed Finch pulled out a sawed-off shotgun from underneath his coat and blasted Holloman at close range on the night of Feb. 13, 1976. Jones later identified Finch out of a live lineup, which his defense claims was flawed.
Tony Owens, former Wilson County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy and lead investigator, submitted the projectile in the case to the SBI shortly after Holloman’s killing, according to court documents.
According to the SBI ballistics report, Owens sent that evidence off to the lab on Feb. 18, 1976 — five days after the killing. The findings were returned to Owens on March 29, 1976. The shotgun shell allegedly found in Finch’s car didn’t match the lead removed from Holloman’s body, according to the report and court records.
"The state, acting through the district attorney, said it had provided everything to Mr. Finch, when in fact the state crime laboratory had possession of the ballistics report,” according to the defense’s January’s court filing.
But prosecutors argue that during one point in the 1976 trial, Vernon Daughtridge, Finch’s attorney at the time, referred to an SBI report regarding blood analysis on Finch’s coat, "which was obviously in counsel’s possession,” according to the state’s filed brief.
"This in itself clearly begs the question as to why counsel would not have one SBI lab report in his possession and not the other,” prosecutors stated in its recent court filing.
During November’s evidentiary hearing, Wilson County Superior Court Judge Milton F. Fitch Jr., who later recused himself from the case, asked an SBI agent if the report indicated who the suspects were when the items were submitted to the lab in 1976. While one suspect was Finch, the report also listed another man, Charles Lewis, according to documents and testimony.
In a separate SBI report obtained in 2011, Jones had also identified Lewis in a photographic lineup four days after Finch was arrested. Jones’ identification of Lewis was consistent with what Finch had told investigators — Lewis admitted to him he was involved in the armed robbery and Holloman’s killing, according to the defense’s recent court filing.
Finch’s attorneys contend in addition to the ballistics report, the alternate suspect identification had also been withheld from Finch’s defense in 1976.
Finch’s attorneys also pointed out that both Owens and the prosecutor told the court and jury that despite the opportunity, Jones didn’t identify Lewis as one of the killers, which in fact he had, according to court documents.
Lewis was charged with first-degree murder in Holloman’s death the same day Jones identified him, according to Wilson Times’ research.
The charges were dismissed against Lewis on Jan. 23, 1978, according to court documents.
"No explanation was given for the voluntary dismissal,” according to an SBI report obtained in 2011.
Prosecutors argued during the November evidentiary hearing that even if Lewis was involved in the killing and robbery, Finch could have been a third man.
PIECES OF THE FILE
James Coleman Jr., Duke University School of Law professor, co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic and faculty adviser to the Duke Innocence Project, testified during Finch’s evidentiary hearing about efforts made to obtain records throughout their 10-year investigation into the murder conviction.
When the investigation began in 2001, Coleman contacted the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office, SBI’s general counsel John Watters, the governor’s counsel and the N.C. deputy attorney general to try and get them to assist Duke and also provide them access to any documents related to Finch’s case.
The sheriff’s office under former sheriff Wayne Gay gave Duke access and allowed them to search the office’s basement and boxes to try and locate anything related to the investigation in 1976.
"We obtained pieces of the file but for the most part they were missing despite both the efforts of the sheriff’s department,” Coleman testified.
During Duke’s investigation, they primarily obtained documents that were part of Finch’s court record. But as far as investigative notes or individual documents an investigator would have had on file, they couldn’t find them, according to testimony. They had also requested documents from the Wilson County District Attorney’s Office in the early 2000s, who didn’t help them initially.
"But after the discovery law changed and Mr. (Robert) Evans became the district attorney, he provided me whatever documents and evidence he could find in his office,” Coleman testified.
WHY WASN’T THE BALLISTICS REPORT INCLUDED?
Between 2001 and 2003, Coleman remained in constant contact with Watters in attempts to obtain a file on Finch’s case, Coleman testified in November.
"He refused to provide files, although he indicated that the SBI had conducted an investigation in 1979 ... and that they had a file but that he could not give me access to it,” Coleman testified.
He was also told by the SBI they would not voluntarily give them access to documents in the case.
The SBI eventually provided them with a microfiche of records pertaining to Finch’s case. But it wasn’t until 2011. Watters told Coleman what they received was the entire case file they had on record for Finch, according to court documents.
Documents pertaining to the ballistics report revealed something else. One of the pages was dated Feb. 13, 2003 — the same time period when Coleman requested the entire file from the SBI. A hand-written note indicated a copy of the "entire file” was made and given to Watters. That ballistics report wasn’t included in the microfiche file Watters gave to Duke in 2011.
©The Wilson Times, Wilson, North Carolina.
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