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The morning after Ray Finch was released from prison, he and son Calvin Jones headed to a familiar Wilson spot — Flo’s Kitchen. The 81-year-old wanted a biscuit.
Since then, Finch has reconnected with old friends, met new ones and spent quality time with his family — something he hadn’t been able to do for more than four decades.
On Tuesday, Mayor Bruce Rose and Tobs General Manager Mike Bell gave Finch another moment to treasure. With the community and his children cheering him on, Finch stepped up to the mound at Fleming Stadium and threw out the game’s first pitch.
“It means a whole lot to me to have Mr. Finch out here,” Rose said. “What he went through, 43 years away from his family, his friends, for something he did not do is terrible. I am so glad he got out and was able to come to the ballgame today. I’m just happy to have him with me today. He’s become a good friend.”
A new life began for Finch on May 23 after a federal judge ordered his release and overturned his 1976 murder conviction. He had spent 43 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.
Despite starts and stops and battles lost within the court system, Finch never gave up on the one thing he had always hoped for — freedom.
“He’s been stripped of a lot of happiness and entertainment for many years,” Bell said. “We wanted to do something special for him so he could enjoy a night out with his family.”
Finch’s children were also at Tuesday’s Tobs game, making more memories. As Finch sat with Rose, the two looked like old friends — laughing and eating ice cream together.
Finch took in every moment. Every few minutes, he would look over at his children, who were also seated in the stands, and flash a smile.
It’s the little moments like those that are difficult to put into words for his daughter, Katherine Jones-Bailey.
“I’m just so overjoyed,” she said. “To see that smile on his face right there is just priceless.”
Prior to Tuesday’s game, Rose and his wife, Becky, took Finch and his children out to dinner at K&W Cafeteria. Tears filled the mayor’s eyes as he blessed the food and thanked God for Finch’s freedom and return home.
Rose had already visited Finch at his daughter’s home, where he now lives.
“He has a good attitude,” Rose said. “It’s really unreal. He’s still in good health. He’s 81 years old and can still crack a joke. He’s got a good family who loves him.”
RALLYING THE COMMUNITY
In June, Wilson County District Attorney Robert Evans formally dismissed the 1976 murder charge against Finch. 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 Duke Innocence Project, which is a university initiative and not a state innocence commission, agreed to take Finch’s case in 2001. It was its first one. He has since been represented by Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, now in the process of filing 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 roughly $2.1 million, the state has a maximum compensation cap of $750,000.
Rose said Finch’s story is one that’s important to the Wilson community. That’s why he wanted to tell hundreds of Tobs fans Tuesday who Finch was and what he had endured.
Rose said he’s already contacted Cooper’s office and supports Finch’s pardon. He hopes the Wilson community will rally around the effort as well.
“I think everyone will get behind this,” he said.
‘AN AMAZING FEELING’
Finch, who is the oldest and longest-serving inmate in North Carolina to have his conviction overturned, was overwhelmed with joy Tuesday.
Prior to throwing out the first pitch, he and his sons, Calvin Jones and Michael Taylor, practiced throwing the baseball beside the stands. It was as if they were never apart as they laughed and played ball.
Father’s Day was also special for Finch this year, his family said. Taylor, who had been in prison himself for more than a decade, was released the week after his father.
Taylor was 7 years old when his father went to prison; he never anticipated the day they would all be together.
“I never thought he would get out,” he said. “It was just an amazing feeling.”
Finch’s daughter said she was worried at first when her father was released. He’s still recovering from a stroke. While he has a strong support system, she didn’t want him to be lonely either. But that thought quickly faded.
“He has people he can talk to,” she said. “He was surprised at how the community has really stepped up and reached out. We are all in this together.”
A former Duke law student who worked on Finch’s case has started a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $2,300 toward a $10,000 goal.