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A lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday claims the Wilson County sheriff’s administration in the 1970s not only framed Ray Finch for the murder of a Black Creek store owner but that several other officials had a hand in covering up evidence that could have freed Finch decades prior to his May release.
Finch, 81, went to prison for 43 years in the killing of Richard “Shadow” Holloman, who was gunned down in a failed robbery attempt inside the country store on Feb. 13, 1976.
In May, Finch’s conviction was overturned by a federal judge, and he was released after serving a life sentence with the help of Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which was the driving force behind his exoneration.
The lawsuit claims Finch’s wrongful imprisonment was a result of a pattern of “rampant” corruption in the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office at the time of his 1976 arrest and subsequent conviction.
“Mr. Finch’s conviction, death sentence and imprisonment were not the result of mistake, negligence or incompetence,” the lawsuit alleges. Instead, the conviction, death sentence and imprisonment were the “direct result of the intentional and/or reckless misconduct” of members of the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office including former Sheriff Robin Pridgen, who died in 2012; former Chief Deputy Tony Owens, who was the lead investigator in the Holloman case; and former deputy James Tant.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, seeks compensatory and punitive damages for Finch’s wrongful imprisonment. Wilson County is also being sued along with other individuals including a former N.C. State Bureau of Investigation agent, Alan McMahan, and the SBI’s former counsel, John Watters.
Also named in the suit is Sheriff Calvin Woodard, being sued in his official capacity as Pridgen’s successor. He’s only named due to a legal technicality. Woodard was not associated with the sheriff’s office at the time of the 1976 murder, and there are no allegations against the current administration. All others named in the lawsuit are being sued as individuals.
The lawsuit claims that evidence proving Finch’s innocence was withheld, which prolonged his wrongful incarceration.
“Wilson County has no knowledge of this lawsuit as of today,” Assistant County Manager Ron Hunt told The Wilson Times on Wednesday.
‘PROLONGED PATTERN OF CORRUPTION’
Finch’s lawsuit claims that an “extensive and prolonged pattern of corruption” by the sheriff’s office “directly called into question the validity of Finch’s arrest, trial and conviction.”
Pridgen was indicted on federal racketeering charges in 1978 and was subsequently convicted by a federal jury on charges of violating federal racketeering statutes and for evading federal income taxes. His charges were connected to the sweeping and multi-state Federal Bureau of Investigation probe that showed the solicitation and acceptance of bribes for protecting prostitution and illegal gambling enterprises in Wilson County.
Owens, who was acquitted by a federal jury, was indicted for making false statements to the grand jury, obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges in connection to the federal investigation.
The Charlotte-based law firm Rudolf Widenhouse is representing Finch in the matter. The lawsuit also alleges that the former SBI lawyer concealed files in 2003 when Duke’s Innocence Project began its investigation, and went on to allegedly conceal files in 2008 and 2011.
The lawsuit claims that during the 1970s, the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office was operated as a corrupt enterprise by Pridgen and Owens. The lawsuit also alleges that evidence against Finch was “fabricated” in an effort to secure a conviction to protect an alternate suspect in the case, who had direct knowledge of the widespread corruption within the sheriff’s office at the time and could have implicated the office and various members in its widespread illegal activity in 1976. The FBI investigation into the sheriff’s office didn’t begin until 1977.
The alternate suspect in the case was arrested and charged in Holloman’s killing and identified in a photographic lineup by a store employee who was the state’s key witness at the time of Finch’s trial. That information wasn’t revealed until 2011. Those charges were eventually dropped two years after Holloman’s murder. No reason was ever cited.
The lawsuit claims that the sheriff’s office “pattern” of corruption in the 1970s included a robbery ring where certain members of the sheriff’s office would set up robberies in coordination with local criminals and divide the proceeds. The lawsuit alleges the failed robbery attempt at Holloman’s Black Creek store was part of one of those setups.
Part of the lawsuit also contends favorable and documented evidence was intentionally withheld from the Wilson County district attorney in 1976 as well as Finch’s defense lawyer, all of which could have proven Finch was actually innocent.
The lawsuit claims that prior to July 1976, the Wilson County Board of Commissioners “condoned and ratified the unlawful conduct” of the sheriff’s office administration.
“From the date of his arrest, and for the ensuing 43 years, Mr. Finch has been unwavering in maintaining his innocence,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Finch, and persons acting on his behalf, such as the Duke Innocence Project, have made numerous pleas to state and local officials to review the circumstances of his arrest in light of the foregoing facts, but these efforts were thwarted at every turn by persons seeking to conceal facts and evidence related to Mr. Finch’s case, and to obstruct and hinder Mr. Finch in his efforts to establish his innocence in court, as was his constitutional right.”
Another claim includes “willful blindness” by a former N.C. State Bureau of Investigation agent, who was tasked with investigating whether Finch was framed for the murder in 1979.
The lawsuit also alleges that the former SBI lawyer concealed files in 2003 when Duke’s Innocence Project began its investigation, and went on to allegedly conceal files in 2008 and 2011. Those files, which took Finch’s lawyers with the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic nearly a decade to obtain, eventually showed other favorable evidence that was withheld from Finch during his 1976 trial.
The lawsuit alleges that Owens, the lead investigator, “intentionally concealed” favorable and impeachment evidence from the Wilson County district attorney at Finch’s trial. Owens also allegedly obstructed justice and made “false claims” at various points in Finch’s post-conviction investigation.
“The acts of the individual defendants alleged above were willful, wanton, intentional and evinced a reckless disregard for and indifference to the rights and safety of the public, including Ray Finch, who as a result spent 43 years in prison for a crime he did not commit,” the lawsuit states.
THE CASE SO FAR
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 Wilson County District Attorney’s Office subsequently dismissed the murder charge against Finch.
Finch is the oldest and longest-serving inmate in North Carolina to have his conviction overturned, according to research by The Wilson Times. Finch filed a petition in August 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. While that would equal roughly $2.1 million, the state has a $750,000 maximum compensation cap.
Editor’s Note: A story in Friday’s edition of The Wilson Times will provide further analysis and an in-depth look at the lawsuit and its claims.