Thursday, December 19, 2013 10:30 PM
New judge maps out old murder case
By Olivia Neeley | Times Staff Writer
A new judge laid out the roadmap for the potential resolution in the case of Charles Ray Finch, who has spent 37 years in prison for a killing he always maintains he didn’t commit.
The case began after Finch was convicted in the slaying of Richard "Shadow” Holloman, 46, in his grocery store near Black Creek in 1976. His freedom hinges on this new decision-maker and a ruling that could come as early as February.
"I am going to take my time,” said Beaufort County Superior Court Judge Wayland J. Sermons Jr., citing the importance of the matter at hand.
Sermons summoned attorneys and Finch to Wilson on Thursday for a preliminary hearing on the status of Finch’s case.
Sermons said the issues were "very different” than other old cases under the microscope where new technology could play a role in a person’s exoneration. He said there are allegations of newly discovered evidence and allegations of evidence withheld at the time of the original trial. Sermons said his role is essential in this case.
After hearing summaries from the defense and prosecutors, Sermons ordered them both to prepare and file their arguments in the case by Jan. 24. After those are filed, each side will have 15 days to issue responses to each other’s arguments, which would fall on Feb. 7. Sermons said he would review everything pertaining to the case, including documents, evidence, original trial transcripts and the arguments between both parties when making his ruling. He also said he will review testimony and documents entered into evidence during Finch’s recent evidentiary hearing in November. He may decide to hear oral arguments later.
SECOND SBI REPORT
Both the defense and prosecutors briefly argued their positions in the case on Thursday.
While November’s evidentiary hearing came to an abrupt halt, both Finch’s defense and the Wilson County District Attorney’s office said they would not present any more evidence in the case.
"The evidence is closed,” said attorney Jamie Lau of Duke’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic and part of Finch’s defense team. Finch’s defense team includes Charlotte attorney David Rudolf and Theresa Newman, also of Duke’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic.
Finch’s attorneys have argued there were problems with Finch’s case, including a flawed lineup that largely led to his conviction in 1976.
On the night Finch was arrested in the death of Holloman, he was placed in a lineup along with six other black men. But Finch stood out, his attorneys and experts said. He was the only suspect wearing a three-quarter length coat in all three lineups, which suggested Finch was the man the only eyewitness to the killing, Lester Floyd Jones, should or could identify.
The coat itself was a "cue” for Jones to pick out Finch, experts and attorneys said.
Finch’s attorneys argued Thursday that even Tony Owens, former Wilson County sheriff’s chief deputy and lead investigator in Finch’s case, testified during November’s evidentiary hearing the lineups were unfairly conducted.
Also during the November hearing, Finch’s attorneys introduced a second State Bureau of Investigation report. Part of the prosecutor’s evidence during the 1976 trial included an old shotgun shell that was found in Finch’s blue Cadillac that night. During the trial, the state cut open that shotgun shell found in Finch’s car and asked them to compare it to the projectile removed from Holloman’s body.
The report revealed it wasn’t a match.
Lau said the lineup, in which the eyewitness identified Finch as the killer, made up about 80 percent of the state’s case. The remaining 20 percent of the state’s case at the time of trial relied on the shotgun shell.
"Their entire case has been undermined and there is no evidence left demonstrating that Charles Ray Finch was ever involved …,” Lau said Thursday. He said the evidence withheld from Finch’s defense in 1976, demonstrates just "how flawed his conviction is.”
But prosecutors disagree.
Wilson County District Attorney Robert A. Evans told the court Thursday he didn’t hear anything during November’s evidentiary hearing regarding information withheld from Finch’s defense attorney in 1976.
Evans has also argued that under the felony murder rule, the judge in 1976 also added that it could have been a sawed-off shotgun or any other gun to find Finch guilty in the killing. Evans contends that the state’s theory then was that Finch may have been the person who pulled the trigger and killed Holloman but that he could have also been found guilty, under a felony murder rule, even if Finch didn’t pull the trigger but was participating in the robbery.
"This is not a case of actual innocence,” Evans told the court Thursday.
And that to conclude from a "moral center that this man is innocence, I can’t say that,” he told the court.
Evans said that Finch received a complete, fair trial under the Sixth Amendment.
Assistant District Attorney Bill Wolfe argued Thursday that some of Finch’s claims should be procedurally barred, meaning they’ve been heard in court previously and that a judge has ruled on those claims. Wolfe said the claims raised in Finch’s Motion for Appropriate Relief now are the same claims Finch raised in another Motion for Appropriate Relief years ago, which a judge denied.
"There is nothing different about it now,” Wolfe said Thursday.
He also told the court there was likely more than one man armed that night and it didn’t matter what type of gun was used.
"They (jurors) were instructed on felony murder,” he said. He added that the lineups were considered constitutional in 1976.
But Finch’s attorneys argue those "suggestive lineups” are no longer constitutional after research and subsequent court rulings. Research shows even under the best circumstances, eyewitness identification is highly problematic, according to Duke attorneys’ court motions. It is also the single most common factor in the vast majority of wrongful convictions, they said. According to Harvard research, out of 250 DNA exonerations cases, researchers found "eyewitnesses misidentified 76 percent of exonerees.”
Lau said after the Duke Innocence’s Project investigation, claims in the Motion for Appropriate relief now are different from the one filed by Finch years ago. Finch’s attorneys said that newly discovered evidence and documents, which were never disclosed at the time of Finch’s trial, are crucial parts of the case. Lau said Finch has never had an opportunity to demonstrate his innocence in court with the full scope of new claims and new evidence.
Finch’s attorneys contend the state’s case then and now is weak.
"What evidence is remaining that implicates Finch?” Lau said. "There is no evidence supporting that conviction.”
After a decade-long investigation into Finch’s case, Duke University’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic, which is not a part of the state’s innocence commission, spent less than two days detailing its case during an evidentiary hearing that began Nov. 13 on why Finch’s conviction should be overturned.
But the hearing came to an abrupt halt after one of Finch’s attorneys began questioning a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who was a lead investigator into the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office corruption case in the 1970s. Wilson County Superior Court Judge Milton F. Fitch Jr. recused himself from the hearing, citing he represented several people during that time period in connection with the federal case and grand jury proceedings when he practiced law.
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 Rudolf, who has defended clients including Rae Carruth and Michael Peterson. Testimony included an SBI agent with N.C. State Crime Lab and former assistant district attorney David Williams and 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.
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