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A Wilson man who has fought for more than 40 years to have his 1976 murder conviction overturned will have his case heard in federal court Thursday.
Charles Ray Finch, 80, is serving a life sentence in the killing of Richard “Shadow” Holloman, who was gunned down in a failed robbery attempt inside his Black Creek country store on Feb. 13. 1976.
Finch has maintained his innocence since the time of his arrest.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit will hear Finch’s case. His attorneys will argue he is factually innocent of the crime.
Oral arguments will be held at the Cherokee Tribal Court on the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina — a first for the Fourth Circuit, which is headquartered in Richmond, Virginia.
It’s part of the court’s effort to increase public access to oral arguments. Finch’s case is one of three that will be heard Thursday.
It’s a significant step, Finch’s attorneys say, in a long fight to free a man they believe is not only innocent but one where the case represents a “miscarriage of justice.”
“This is really the first opportunity that Ray has had to present the evidence of his innocence and force the state to address it,” said Jim Coleman, Duke University School of Law professor and co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which represents Finch. “Here the court has forced them (the state) to identify the evidence they claim that shows beyond a reasonable doubt that Ray is guilty.”
In the past, Coleman contends, the state has avoided dealing with Finch’s claims and instead relied on procedural default.
Prosecutors have said Finch received a fair trail and that his case is not one of “actual innocence.”
Coleman, who is also director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility at Duke, will be arguing the case on Finch’s behalf. Deputy attorneys general from the N.C. Department of Justice will also make their case.
While Finch won’t be present for the hearing, his attorneys say, Finch’s family members plan to be there.
Finch is currently in prison at the Greene Correctional Institution in Maury.
SHOTGUN VS. HANDGUN
Several factors contributed to Finch’s wrongful conviction, his attorneys contend, including flawed and suggestive police lineups surrounding the unreliability of eyewitness identification.
During Finch’s 1976 trial, Wilson County prosecutors claimed Holloman was killed at close range with a shotgun. They also argued that the alleged eyewitness to the shooting, Lester Floyd Jones, who worked with Holloman at the store, saw Finch shoot Holloman with that shotgun.
“Now, they no longer make that claim,” Coleman argued, referring to the state. “They don’t say who killed Holloman.”
The Duke Innocence Project, which is not an innocence commission, agreed to take Finch’s case in 2001. Throughout the course of the investigation, the law clinic found what it contends were key pieces of evidence including a second autopsy that was performed four days after the murder by another medical examiner. That document contradicts Jones’ account of what happened that night in 1976. The medical examiner who conducted the first autopsy and said Holloman was killed with a shotgun admitted years later in a sworn affidavit to Duke that he was wrong.
Coleman said the slug removed from Holloman’s body was not a shotgun pellet but was a bullet that came from a handgun.
“Nobody ever claimed Ray had a handgun,” Coleman said, referring to the state’s theory and the alleged eyewitness.
Prosecutors have claimed the state’s theory back in 1976 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 the felony murder rule even if Finch didn’t pull the trigger but was participating in the robbery.
Coleman said the state is now arguing Finch was an accomplice, something that was never argued during his trial.
“There is zero evidence,” he said.
Several witnesses testified on behalf of Finch at the time of his trial. They said he was gambling with them in downtown Wilson at the time of the murder, which happened at 9 p.m., according to original trial transcripts.
The reliance of the alleged eyewitness in the case is also problematic, Coleman has said.
Jones gave a “vague” description of the suspect, who he said pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and killed his boss at close range, attorneys argue. Jones never described or documented what the killer’s face actually looked like but only described what the killer was wearing — a stocking over his head.
Finch’s attorneys also claim that Jones’ description of the killer evolved over time.
By the time of Finch’s trial, Jones had included the suspect’s weight, height, complexion and clothing, according to Finch’s attorneys. And that wasn’t mentioned until the day before Finch’s murder trial in a pretrial hearing, according to records.
Finch’s arrest created a domino effect, according to attorneys. Finch was also “marked” for identification in three “suggestive” police lineups. Finch was the only person wearing a coat and experts say that was a “cue” for Jones to pick Finch as the perpetrator.
Former Wilson County sheriff’s deputy Tony Owens, who was the lead investigator in the 1976 case, said in 2013 that the lineups were “unfair.”