Wednesday, January 30, 2013 10:21 PM
Innocence Project seeks murder convict's release
By Olivia Neeley | Times Staff Writer
There was no physical evidence tying Charles Ray Finch to the killing of Richard Lynn Holloman. The state built its case based on four threads: an eyewitness, an autopsy report, a No. 1 Buck shotgun shell found in Charles Ray Finch’s car, and the testimony of a man that contradicted Finch’s alibi on the night of Feb. 13, 1976.
While those threads appeared to be intact, weaving together a case against Finch, it was the exact opposite, advocates say.
"We tell our students when we do these investigations that we are looking for loose threads, not a smoking gun,” said 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. "You pull those threads to unravel a wrongful conviction. It’s not a big thing. You are never going to find something by itself that proves this guy was innocent. What you look for are those little things that are inconsistent, those little things that indicate that something was going on here. That’s how we do these investigations. And that’s what we did in this case.”
As the Duke Law Innocence Project began to take a closer look into the 1976 conviction, a different case unraveled.
"I think the errors that we’ve uncovered should have been discovered by others, and they should have been discovered back in 1976,” Coleman said.
Finch, who will be 75-years-old next month, has spent 36 years in prison for a killing he has always maintained he didn’t commit.
Last week, a Motion for Appropriate Relief was filed in Wilson County by the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic on behalf of Finch asking the court to overturn his conviction.
Coleman and his students have worked countless hours, making trips to Wilson, talking to original witnesses, digging through documents and never giving up on getting access to files that eventually furthered their case.
"When you find a loose thread, you pull on it,” he said. "The loose thread is connected to other things. And that’s what helps you unravel the whole thing.” And that’s what they believe they’ve done the past several years. They also believe while it may have taken them several years to do it, they believe the new evidence they uncovered should set Finch free from prison.
FIRST MAJOR INVESTIGATION
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 only four days. The jury, which deliberated for less than two hours, found him guilty of first-degree murder in Richard Lynn Holloman’s death. The next day, a judge sentenced him to die via the gas chamber on Oct. 4, 1976. But 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.
"It is almost certain ... the state of North Carolina would have executed Finch long before the facts warranting relief from his conviction were discovered,” according to the motion.
After Finch’s conviction and direct appeal, he has continued to fight to establish his innocence. He filed several motions on his own for appropriate relief, all of which were denied. Two of those motions were denied by a sitting judge who had prosecuted Finch in 1976, according to the motion filed last week.
The Project got involved in Finch’s case in 2001, after he had written them a letter seeking help. He had previously contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, but the Innocence Project was the first to respond.
"He was the very first case that we took,” Coleman said. "It was our first major investigation where we thought this guy is innocent. And we put a big effort into it at the very beginning.”
The Wrongful Convictions Clinic has exonerated four people in the past two years in North Carolina.
Coleman said from the first time they met with Finch until now, he has always said he did not kill Richard Holloman. And The Innocence Project "absolutely” believes him, he said.
"Most people didn’t think Finch was guilty, even back then,” Coleman said. "A lot of his friends certainly didn’t. But other people, too. There were a number of them that expressed real doubt.”
He said some have resigned themselves to being in prison and then they focus on the effort to try and get them out.
"Some guys keep going out of hope,” Coleman said about the long process of exoneration. "Finch, I think kept going out of anger. I think he was so angry about all of this that that’s what kind of fed him and kept him going. He simply doesn’t accept that he should be in prison.”
The investigation led them to several pieces of new evidence, including a second autopsy report that had never been revealed, a State Bureau of Investigation report uncovered in 2011 and the key eyewitness identifying a different man involved in the robbery attempt in a photo line up — none of which were disclosed at the time of the trial.
"They (the state) had information they should have disclosed,” Coleman said. "And if they had disclosed it, it would have shown what they were arguing (during the trial) was not true.”
In addition to his claims of innocence, there was another claim Finch has maintained since his arrest — he was set up.
As The Project’s investigation deepened, other threads began to unravel. And one of them would lead to the sheriff’s administration under Robin Pridgen, whose chief deputy at the time was Tony Owens. In 1978, Pridgen and Owens were federally indicted on conspiracy to obstruct laws regarding gambling operations and corruption in Wilson County.
And Owens was the lead investigator in the murder case against Finch in 1976.
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