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After nearly two decades fighting to get Charles Ray Finch’s 1976 murder conviction overturned, his lawyers scored a key victory at the federal level, one that could set the 80-year-old Wilson man free.
Finch is serving a life sentence 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. Finch, who has spent more than 42 years in prison, has maintained his innocence since the time of his arrest.
The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in Finch’s favor, concluding in its opinion that not only were his 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.
“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,” Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote in the published opinion, with Judge Barbara Milano Keenan and Judge Henry F. Floyd concurring.
The three-judge panel was unanimous in its decision.
“Because the present record meets the exacting standard for the actual innocence gateway to consideration of a constitutional claim, we reverse the district court’s decision and remand the petition for adjudication on the merits,” Gregory wrote in the opinion.
‘THAT’S THE DEFINITION OF ACTUAL INNOCENCE’
The 4th Circuit weighed in on the facts of the case as well as new evidence discovered by students and lawyers for Duke University’s Innocence Project, which took Finch’s case in 2001.
The Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which represents Finch, has worked for decades in trying to get Finch’s conviction overturned. The 4th Circuit reversed the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina’s 2016 decision denying Finch’s petition.
Jim Coleman, Duke University School of Law professor and co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, said technically the case goes back to the lower court, which would have to now hear all of Finch’s claims based on the merits of the case.
But there could be a silver lining.
Coleman, who also argued before the 4th Circuit in Finch’s case in November, said they will now ask N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein to “remedy the miscarriage of justice in joining us in a motion to overturn Ray’s conviction and release him without any further proceedings in court.”
While Stein isn’t obligated to do so, Coleman said Duke advocates hope he will based on what the 4th Circuit panel determined in its opinion.
“The important thing the court said was as a result of the investigation, there is no credible evidence that a reasonable jury could convict Ray,” said Coleman, who is also director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility at Duke. “That’s the definition of actual innocence. We’ve established by the record that Ray is innocent.”
After Finch’s arrest, he was subsequently placed in a police lineup along with six other black men. But Finch stood out: He was the only suspect wearing a three-quarter length coat in all three lineups, which eyewitness identification experts say was a cue for Lester Floyd Jones, a witness in the case, to pick out Finch.
His attorneys say those “suggestive lineups” are no longer constitutional after research and subsequent court rulings. The 4th Circuit agreed and determined the eyewitness expert who testified on behalf of Finch during the 2013 evidentiary hearing in Wilson County supported Finch’s allegations of a violation of the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.
That amendment protects people from “unreliable identifications that stem from impermissbly suggestive procedures.”
“These procedural issues support Finch’s allegations of constitutional error that he was misidentified by Jones,” Gregory wrote in the opinion. “No reasonable juror would likely find Finch guilty beyond a reasonable doubt if it knew the high likelihood that he was misidentified by Jones both outside and inside the courtroom as a murder suspect because of the impermissibly suggestive lineups.”
SHOTGUN VS. HANDGUN
The judges also said Finch’s case is one where there is “no physical evidence implicating” him in the crime. The prosecution’s theory during Finch’s 1976 trial was that Jones, a store employee, witnessed Finch kill Holloman with a sawed-off shotgun. But a second autopsy discovered in the case decades later contradicted Jones’ account of what happened that night.
The autopsy report concluded that Holloman was killed with a pistol and not a shotgun, according to court documents.
The medical examiner who initially wrote the first autopsy that concluded Holloman was killed with a shotgun admitted years later in a sworn affidavit that he was wrong, according to court documents.
Other new evidence Finch’s attorneys found included that the shells found at the crime scene weren’t a match with the shotgun shell investigators said they found in Finch’s blue Cadillac at the time of his arrest.
“This new evidence not only undercuts the state’s physical evidence, but it also discredits the reliability of Jones,” according to the opinion.
FELONY MURDER RULE
Prosecutors have said during previous court hearings and motions that Finch received a complete and fair trial and that his case is not one of “actual innocence.”
State prosecutors have argued in post-conviction hearings that Finch may or may not have been the person who pulled the trigger and killed Holloman, but that he could have been found guilty under the felony murder rule even if he didn’t pull the trigger but was participating in the robbery. They also argued it didn’t matter what type of firearm Finch allegedly used or who among the three men involved in the robbery killed Holloman.
The 4th Circuit judges said the trial court at the time provided inconsistent instructions to the jury regarding felony murder, “but ultimately required the jury to find that Finch fired the fatal shot in order to convict him of first-degree murder.”
Prosecutors argued to jurors in the 1976 trial: “Finch was the trigger man who shot and killed Richard Holloman,” according to court records.
But the new evidence, the judges said, showing Holloman’s “wounds were not in fact caused by a shotgun significantly undermines this crucial factual determination that Finch was the shooter, which the jury was instructed to make before convicting Finch of first-degree murder,” according to the opinion.
They said if Jones “lacks credibility to identify a murder weapon, any reasonable juror would likely question his credibility to accurately relay what he saw the night of Holloman’s murder.”
“If Jones’ account of the murder weapon cannot be trusted, then any reasonable juror likely would not credit his recollection that Finch was at the store,” the opinion states.
‘HOST OF CREDIBILITY ISSUES’
Jones’ credibility was also further weakened when he didn’t identify the defendant’s key physical characteristics. Finch had a beard at the time of the arrest. Jones never documented that or told police or the lead investigator in the case, Tony Owens, what the killer actually looked like — only what he was wearing.
“There is no physical evidence implicating Finch because medical and ballistic evidence demonstrates that the shotgun shell found in Finch’s car cannot be definitely matched to any of the crime scene ballistic evidence,” Gregory wrote in the unanimous court opinion.
Gregory also wrote that Jones, the state’s key witness, had a “host of credibility issues,” and “much of the evidence corroborating Jones’ testimony, including Deputy Owens, has been undermined.”