False forensic testimony and an eyewitness identification manipulated by police misconduct sent a North Carolina man, Charles Ray Finch, to North Carolina’s death row in July 1976.
Forty-three years later, he has become the 166th person in the United States since 1973 to be exonerated after having been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death over the murder of a shopkeeper during a robbery.
The 81-year-old’s conviction was overturned this May when a U.S. District Court judge ordered his release. The judge subsequently gave prosecutors 30 days to decide whether to retry Finch.
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A prosecutor has since filed a dismissal notice in the case of Finch, who was released last month from Greene Correctional Institution. In the notice dated June 14, Wilson County District Attorney Robert Evans writes that a retrial of the 1976 case is “impractical/impossible” because witnesses are dead, retired or relocated.
With the dismissal of charges, Finch has now been fully exonerated.
Finch, who is the oldest and longest-serving inmate in North Carolina to have his conviction overturned, was sentenced to die via gas chamber in 1976 for the murder of the shopkeeper, Richard “Shadow” Holloman during an attempted robbery inside the latter’s Black Creek country store on February 13, 1976.
But on the day he was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled North Carolina’s mandatory death penalty law was unconstitutional, reports The Wilson Times.
Scores of witnesses testified during Finch’s 1976 trial that he had nothing to do with the murder, as he was nowhere near the store at the time of the incident.
But other factors, such as flawed and suggestive police lineups that relied on the unreliability of eyewitness identification would contribute to Finch’s wrongful conviction, said a report by the Death Penalty Information Center.
An alleged eyewitness to the shooting, Floyd Jones, who worked with Holloman at the store, said he saw Finch shoot Holloman with a shotgun at close range.
Floyd said the killer was wearing a stocking over his head but he never mentioned to the police that the said killer had any facial hair. Meanwhile, at the time Holloman was killed, Finch had a long beard and sideburns. At trial, Jones changed his description of the shooter to fit Finch’s appearance
A new review of the autopsy evidence years after the crime would disclose that Holloman was killed with a pistol, not a shotgun. New ballistics evidence also contradicted prosecution claims that the shells found at the crime scene matched a shotgun shell found in Finch’s car, said the Death Penalty Information Centre report.
The report added that other witnesses were pressured into providing testimony implicating Finch. It would later emerge that Floyd had “cognitive issues, struggled with alcoholism and had issues with short-term memory recall.”
Meanwhile, in 1977, Finch was resentenced to life in prison.
In the Fourth Circuit decision that declared Finch “actually innocent,” Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote that “Finch has overcome the exacting standard for actual innocence through sufficiently alleging and providing new evidence of a constitutional violation and through demonstrating that the totality of the evidence, both old and new, would likely fail to convince any reasonable juror of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Finch’s daughter, Katherine Jones-Bailey said the wrongful conviction victimized both her family and Holloman’s.
“They still didn’t get justice,” she said. “We all end up suffering at my dad’s expense.”
Finch’s 43 years in prison is more than any other death-row exoneree in modern times, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. He is the ninth person exonerated from death row in North Carolina. Seven of the North Carolina death-row exonerees are black; an eighth is Latino.
All of the North Carolina death-row exonerations involved witness perjury or false accusation, and eight also involved official misconduct, the Center said, adding that those two factors are the most prevalent causes of wrongful capital convictions in the United States.
Finch will now file a petition for a pardon of innocence. If that pardon is granted to 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 said.
That would amount to roughly $2.1 million, however, the state has a cap of maximum compensation of $750,000, reports The Wilson Times.
“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,” said Jim Coleman, Duke University School of Law professor and co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which represents Finch.
“We hope the public will find a way to show its support for a pardon.”