Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
The Wilson County District Attorney’s Office has formally dismissed the 1976 murder charge against 81-year-old Charles Ray Finch, whose conviction was overturned last month by a federal judge.
Finch was freed after spending more than 40 years in prison 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.
U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle, who ordered Finch’s release on May 23, also gave Wilson County District Attorney Robert Evans 30 days to decide whether to retry Finch.
Evans officially dismissed the first-degree murder charge against Finch last week calling a retrial of the case “impractical/impossible due to witnesses being deceased, retired and/or relocated ...,” according to the court document.
In court earlier this year, the U.S. 4th Circuit of Appeals ruled in Finch’s favor, declaring he was actually innocent of the crime.* The three-judge panel also said in its published opinion that not only were Finch’s constitutional rights violated during three highly suggestive police lineups, but that no reasonable juror would have convicted Finch based on the totality of both old and new evidence.
“The reason the state cannot retry Ray is there is no evidence,” said Jim Coleman, Duke University School of Law professor and co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which represents Finch. “He is innocent.”
PETITION FOR PARDON
Finch is the oldest and longest-serving inmate in North Carolina to have his conviction overturned, according to research by The Wilson Times.
Finch will now file a petition for a pardon of innocence to Gov. Roy Cooper. If Cooper grants the pardon, which would signify that Finch was innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted, Finch would be entitled to $50,000 for each year he was wrongfully imprisoned, his attorneys say.
While that would equal to roughly $2.1 million, the state has a cap of maximum compensation of $750,000.
“In light of the 4th Circuit finding unanimously that we had shown that Ray was innocent and Judge Boyle subsequently finding that the only evidence against Ray (Lester Floyd Jones’ eyewitness identification) violated the Constitution, we are optimistic that a fair review of the petition will result in a pardon,” Coleman said. “We hope the public will find a way to show its support for a pardon.”
A Wilson County jury convicted Finch of first-degree murder, and a judge subsequently sentenced him to die via gas chamber. But on the day he was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled North Carolina’s mandatory death penalty law was unconstitutional.
During his 1976 trial, several witnesses testified that Finch was nowhere near the country store at the time of the murder. They testified he was playing poker in downtown Wilson with them — several miles away from the scene.
Several factors contributed to Finch’s wrongful conviction, his attorneys have said, including flawed and suggestive police lineups relying on 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. Jones gave a vague description of the suspect, who he said pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and killed his boss at close range. 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.
Jones’ description of the killer also evolved over time, Finch’s attorneys have said.
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.
Tony Owens, a former Wilson County sheriff’s deputy, who was the lead investigator in the 1976 case, said in 2013 that the lineups were “unfair.”
SHOTGUN VS. HANDGUN
The Duke Innocence Project, which is a university initiative and not a state innocence commission, agreed to take Finch’s case in 2001. Throughout the course of the investigation, the law clinic found key pieces of evidence including a second autopsy that was performed four days after the murder by another medical examiner, which contradicted the eyewitnesses’ account.
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.
“The state spent years defending the conviction, but the only effect was that every piece of evidence on which they relied was discredited,” Coleman said. “The original claim was that Ray shot the victim with a shotgun. By the time we got to the 4th Circuit, the only argument they made was that Jones had identified Ray as someone who accompanied the unknown killer.”
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the 4th Circuit vacated the conviction. U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle vacated Finch's conviction on May 23.