81-year-old prisoner cleared, freed after four decades behind bars
On May 23, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle vacated the conviction of 81-year-old Charles Ray Finch and ordered his immediate release.
Finch had served 43 years in the North Carolina prison system after being convicted in a 1976 Wilson County murder. Boyle found that this was a wrongful conviction.
Members of Finch’s legal team immediately conducted an impromptu press conference on the courthouse steps with Finch’s family members. Then the lawyers went to work on securing his release.
James E. Coleman Jr., co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke Law School; Theresa Newman, co-director of the clinic; Duke Law professor Jamie Lau; and two recent Duke Law graduates sat on the terrace of a Raleigh restaurant and began negotiating Finch’s release.
“It was a lot of phone calls and emails to appropriate state agencies and strategizing, but mostly it was just waiting,” Duke Law graduate Eileen Ulate told Carolina Public Press.
“It was largely in the state’s hands, and we just had to wait and see when we could start driving toward the prison or if we would have to wait another day.”
Coleman had asked Boyle to order Finch be released no later than noon the following day. N.C. Assistant Attorney General Leslie Cooley Dismukes did not oppose Finch being released on his own recognizance.
Boyle gave Wilson County District Attorney Robert Evans 30 days to dismiss all charges against Finch.
Within a few hours, Coleman, Lau, Ulate and Duke Law graduate Sarah Milkovich were driving to Greene Correctional Facility in Maury, a small community between Greenville and Goldsboro.
At the end of the 78-mile trek, Coleman witnessed Finch tasting freedom for the first time in more than four decades. Because he had suffered a mild stroke, Finch had to be transported in a wheelchair through the prison gates.
“Ray went in a young man, and he was coming out physically bent in a wheelchair, but his spirit and his dignity were never broken,” Coleman told CPP. “He always said he was innocent and he was vindicated ultimately.”
The moment of Finch’s release marked the zenith of an emotional day for his legal team, they said.
“Although the judge’s order was the legal resolution of the battle, it did not feel real until Mr. Finch was able to physically leave,” Ulate said.
“That was absolutely the high point of the day for me. There were a lot of emotions that day for everyone, but overall it was surreal.”
The accused crime
On Feb. 13, 1976, about 9 p.m., Richard “Shadow” Holloman and his employee, Lester Floyd Jones, were closing up his grocery store and gas station on U.S. 117 south of Wilson.
The state’s version of events — as documented in a 1977 N.C. Supreme Court ruling denying Finch’s appeal — states that Holloman and Jones were standing in front of the store when three black men approached them. One of the suspects asked if he could get an Alka-Seltzer.
Holloman was holding a .32-caliber handgun in full view at the time as he unlocked the front door of his grocery store. Once inside, Holloman retrieved the Alka-Seltzer, and one of the suspects pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and demanded money.
Both the assailant and Holloman fired their weapons as Jones jumped behind a counter for cover. After more shots were fired, the three black males exited the store, and Jones called 911. Holloman was transported to Wilson Memorial Hospital, where he later died from gunshot wounds.
When Wilson County sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene, Jones gave a description of the assailant to Chief Deputy Tony Owens of the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office.
Later that night, Finch, while in the company of Charles Lewis, was driving his blue Cadillac on East Nash Street in Wilson. Five police officers stopped and arrested Finch without a warrant. Officers reported finding a shotgun shell in the ashtray of the left rear door of the vehicle. About 1 a.m., Deputy Owens placed Finch in a lineup with six other men. Jones picked out Finch as the man who shot Holloman.
During his trial, Finch said he did consent to the lineup, but Owens never informed Finch of his right to have a lawyer present, nor did Finch ever sign a waiver declining to have a lawyer represent him during questioning.
At the time of Holloman’s murder, Finch told police he had been playing poker with a number of people at Tom Smith’s Shoeshine Parlor in downtown Wilson. The murder had occurred several miles away.
The circumstances under which Owens conducted lineups in the early morning hours of Feb. 14, 1976, turned out to be the key to the Duke Innocence Project proving Finch’s innocence more than four decades later.
Investigation reveals faulty evidence
The legal odyssey of Coleman’s involvement in Finch’s case began in 2002 — five years before Duke Law School established an Innocence Project.
That same year, I. Beverly Lake Jr., former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, and Christine Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, helped form the Actual Innocence Commission — the first commission of its kind in the nation.
Due to the work of the commission, North Carolina became the first state to standardize witness lineup procedures and require all police interrogations be recorded.
The commission also led to the establishment of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission. The first state agency of its kind in the nation, the Innocence Inquiry Commission can wield statutory powers in its investigation of innocence claims.
In 2002, Coleman first met with Vernon F. Daughtridge, Finch’s trial attorney, to gather some key pieces of evidence, including a photocopy of the lineups in which Finch was placed.
“He had a photograph of the lineup showing that Ray was wearing a coat and he was the only person wearing a coat,” Coleman said.
The court record reveals that Chief Deputy Owens performed three lineups on the night of the murder. Finch appeared in all three of those lineups. He was the only suspect wearing a coat. Eventually, Coleman got his hands on copies of all three lineups and additional archival materials related to Finch’s case from UNC-Chapel Hill.
“Because there was no DNA, we were trying to do what I call … a nonbiological equivalent of DNA — something that would exclude Ray as the person who committed the crime and something that would objectively convince a prosecutor or a court that Ray was innocent,” Coleman said.
When Coleman and his colleagues at Duke Law School finally received the complete trial transcript, they began to see avenues for appeal.
“We read the testimony of all of the witnesses and then decided to reinterview them,” Coleman said.
“Either their testimony wasn’t clear, or the court had restricted their testimony.”
One of the first witnesses Coleman met in person was Nobel Harris. During the trial, Harris said he saw Finch drive up to Holloman’s Grocery “at the edge of dark” in his blue Cadillac at the same time Harris was leaving the store. Harris positively identified Finch as being at the store at a time that would have coincided with 6 p.m., yet the crime occurred at 9 p.m.
Upon cross-examination, defense attorney Daughtridge pointed out that Harris had told him that he could not positively identify Finch as the man he saw at Holloman’s Grocery around dusk on Feb. 13, 1976. During his conversation with Coleman in 2002, Harris confirmed he couldn’t be sure it was Charles Ray Finch he saw the day of Holloman’s murder.
As Coleman continued to investigate, he began to realize the central role Owens had played in Finch’s arrest and subsequent conviction.
“Deputy Owens showed up at the crime scene — he went around asking people if they had seen Ray Finch at the scene before he had talked to anybody,” Coleman said.
Once Coleman reviewed all the evidence used to convict Finch, he came to an important realization.
“There was no investigation,” he said.
“Basically, when Owens raised Ray’s name when he showed up at the scene and Nobel Harris said he thought he had seen Ray that evening, Owens had (Finch) arrested, put in a lineup, and that was all the investigation he did.”
The gaping holes in the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office investigation of the crime were clear from the case files, Coleman said.
“(Owens) never questioned Ray, which was extraordinary,” Coleman said. “He basically assumed Ray was the person. I don’t even think he believed that Ray committed the crime, but Ray was the person he had basically selected to be prosecuted for the crime.”
The manner in which Owens conducted the lineups helped create a legal foothold for Coleman and his students in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic.
The court record indicates that Jones picked out a different suspect during the first lineup. Yet Jones testified in court that he picked Finch in all three lineups.
Owens had Finch wear a three-quarter-length coat in all three lineups. None of the other suspects in the lineups wore a coat. Owens changed up the lineup by moving suspects around, but Finch was the only person to wear a coat in all three lineups.
Over the course of Coleman’s investigation, he took two of his law students to interview Owens. As expected, Owens said he conducted the lineups in a manner that was not prejudicial against Finch.
“I had no reason to believe he would tell the truth,” Coleman said.
During an evidentiary hearing in 2013, defense attorney David Rudolf put Owens on the stand. Owens testified that Jones, the grocery store employee, , had told him the perpetrator was wearing a coat, so the one thing he wanted to make sure of was when he put Finch in the lineup was that he wasn’t wearing a coat.
Then, Rudolf presented blown-up photographs of all three lineups. The visual evidence contradicted Owens’ testimony.
Rudolf asked Owens to point out Finch in each lineup, and Owens acknowledged Finch was the only suspect wearing a coat in all three lineups.
Coleman and the Duke Innocence Project also challenged the state’s narrative of an assailant armed with a sawed-off shotgun committing the crime.
Daughtridge first challenged the county medical examiner in court about the type of weapon used in the murder.
“Somebody discharged a shotgun in the store, but Jones had no idea who it was, and he didn’t see it because he was hitting the floor,” Coleman said. “The person who actually killed the victim was using a handgun.”
Coleman wrote a letter to Dr. John Butts, former N.C. chief medical examiner, who in turn tracked down the medical examiner who testified at Finch’s trial.
The medical examiner admitted that Holloman had not died from a shotgun wound but from a slug that could only have come from a handgun.
“The whole case was (Jones) saw Finch shoot the victim face to face standing about 2 feet from him (with a shotgun),” Coleman said. “If he got that wrong, then he could have just as easily gotten wrong the person who committed the crime — it undermined his credibility.”
A break in the case
The big break in the case happened on Jan. 25, 2019, when the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Finch had “overcome the exacting standard for actual innocence” by demonstrating the totality of the evidence “would likely fail to convince any reasonable juror of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
After the ruling, Coleman met with Dismukes, N.C. Assistant Attorney General, and asked her to join him in asking the court to grant relief to Finch. Dismukes declined to join Coleman’s motion but said she wouldn’t oppose his motion. Coleman later filed a motion for summary judgment, and the state did not oppose that motion, either, thus paving the way for Finch’s release.
“Based on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion, our office did not believe that it could prevail in further hearings before the federal courts,” Laura Brewer, communications director for the N.C. Department of Justice, said in a statement. “As such, we did not object to the defense’s motion for summary judgment.”
On June 14, Wilson County District Attorney Evans filed a notice with the court that he had dismissed all charges against Finch. However, Evans did not notify the N.C. Attorney General’s Office or Finch’s legal team until after the 30-day deadline imposed by Judge Boyle.
“I learned (Evans) had dismissed the charges from the Attorney General’s Office, whom he notified (last) week,” Coleman said.
“He did not serve me. I don’t know why it took so long. After the court ruled the eyewitness identification violated the Constitution, the state had no evidence it could use against Ray, whether or not Jones and others were dead or have left the jurisdiction. I hoped Evans would just say Ray was innocent.”
Liberty and celebration
Finch’s first request as a free man was enjoying a big meal of fried chicken at Parker’s Barbecue in Wilson.
Finch’s family drove him to the restaurant, where he was joined by Coleman, Newman, Lau, Ulate and Milkovich, along with Finch’s family and friends.
“Getting to see Mr. Finch folded back into his family and into his community felt sacred,” Milkovich said.
Coleman recalled an amusing moment that served as a poignant reminder of how much time had passed since Finch was a free man.
“At one point, I was sitting next to Ray at Parker’s and I was showing him my iPhone and showing him photographs. The photographs of him being released were online, and he asked, ‘How did you get that in there?’” Coleman said with a chuckle.
Still, the moment was bittersweet as Coleman looked at the road ahead for Finch.
“It’s difficult for any of these guys when they come out (of prison),” Coleman said. “He’s going to be frustrated by stuff, and his family is going to be frustrated by stuff.”
Finch plans on living with his daughter, Katherine Jones-Bailey, who was 2 years old when her father was wrongfully convicted and sent to prison.
The Duke Innocence Project will begin the process of petitioning Gov. Roy Cooper to grant Finch a pardon of innocence. If Cooper agrees to grant the pardon, Finch would be entitled to upward of $750,000. Coleman sat in his office at Duke Law School recently and took a moment to reflect on the powerful image of Finch being wheeled out of prison — an 81-year-old man who spent more than half his life behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
The prosecutors and judges involved in Finch’s case most likely felt indifference at the sight, Coleman said.
In his mind, that image of Finch should serve as a stark reminder of the inequities in our state’s criminal justice system.
“What they should say — the question everyone ought to ask is, ‘Why did it take so long?’” Coleman said.