Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
For nearly a half century, Ray Finch never wavered. Since the time of his 1976 arrest until he was freed in May, Finch maintained he was innocent in the killing of a Black Creek store owner.
Finch also claimed he was framed.
Lawyers filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday backing up that claim. The 60-plus-page complaint also alleges that the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office pinned the murder on Finch to steer prosecutors away from those actually involved in the crime because those individuals, documents suggest, could have implicated the sheriff’s administration in widespread and illegal activity at the time.
Finch served 43 years in prison in the killing of Richard “Shadow” Holloman, who was gunned down in a failed robbery attempt inside his country store on Feb. 13, 1976. After decades of stops and starts, court hearings and motions filed, Finch’s conviction was overturned by a federal judge. Finch, now 81, was released in May after serving a life sentence.
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.
Duke University’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic spent years uncovering new evidence that eventually led to Finch’s release.
HEIGHT OF CORRUPTION
Holloman’s 1976 murder happened in a climate of corruption and illegal conduct involving the sheriff’s office. And Finch’s subsequent arrest occurred during the “height” of that period, according to the lawsuit.
In 1977, former Wilson County Sheriff Robin Pridgen and former Chief Deputy Tony Owens, who was the lead investigator in the Holloman case, were identified as targets of a sweeping multi-state federal investigation that linked the sheriff’s office to prostitution, gambling and theft rings as well as trafficking narcotics, according to the suit.
The FBI investigation showed a pattern of bribes and extortion, according to official FBI records.
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 FBI 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.
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.”
ROBBERIES, SETUPS AND HOLDUPS
The FBI investigation, which stained Wilson County for years, found that the sheriff’s office with Pridgen’s and Owens’ knowledge had “facilitated a robbery ring operating in Wilson County,” according to the lawsuit.
Here’s how it would work, according to the lawsuit that cites the 1977 FBI investigation: One or more sheriff’s office employees would set up robberies and burglaries of local businesses and individuals by local criminals and divide up the proceeds of those thefts with the perpetrators.
The FBI investigation discovered that members of the sheriff’s office would “identify a business, such as a country store, that was known to be holding large amounts of cash, and facilitate a robbery or burglary of that store,” the lawsuit states.
If those criminals were suspected of or arrested for other crimes, “Pridgen and Owens would take steps to ensure that the charges were dismissed or that the person otherwise received favorable treatment from the state,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges this was done to ensure that people involved in the rings didn’t reveal what they knew or the involvement with the illegal conduct of the sheriff’s office.
The FBI investigation established that Owens, with the knowledge of Pridgen, had set up individuals for “false arrests, and paid a known criminal to plant drugs on a third party,” the lawsuit alleges.
MURDER, ARREST AND LINEUPS
Holloman and his employee, Lester Floyd Jones, were closing up the Black Creek country store on U.S. 117 on that February 1976 night when three black men approached them. One of the men asked if he could buy an Alka-Seltzer. Holloman asked the man if he needed water and a paper cup for it.
That’s when another man answered, “Yes, and your money, too.”
Jones, an alleged eyewitness, said one of the men pulled out a sawed-off shotgun from beneath his coat and began to fire.
Holloman, who later died, shot back, and the three robbers fled without taking anything.
Finch had an alibi. Several witnesses testified during his 1976 trial that Finch was gambling with them in downtown Wilson at the time of the murder, which happened at 9 p.m.
Jones had given a state trooper, who was first to arrive on the scene, a vague description of the suspect and a description of the getaway car — a black Pontiac with one light out. Finch was driving a baby blue Cadillac at the time.
Jones never said what the killer’s face looked like but only described what the killer was wearing — a stocking over his head. And that vague description didn’t give Owens probable cause to arrest Finch, who had distinctive facial features at the time — a mustache, beard and sideburns, Finch’s attorneys have said
Jones’ description of the killer also evolved over time.
By the time of Finch’s trial, Jones had included the suspect’s weight, height, complexion and clothing, according to court documents. And that wasn’t mentioned until a pretrial hearing the day before Finch’s capital murder trial, according to records. Finch was also “marked” for identification in three “suggestive” police lineups. He was the only person wearing a coat, and experts say that was a cue for Jones to pick Finch as the perpetrator.
‘PERIOD OF CORRUPTION’
Prior to Holloman’s attempted robbery and murder, there had been a number of similar robberies in the county involving country stores and three other instances in which a county store owner had been killed during a robbery, according to the lawsuit. The sheriff’s office “set up, coordinated and profited from robberies and burglaries of local individuals and business,” the lawsuit contends.
The suit also alleges that “the robbery of Holloman’s store — the crime that resulted in the murder of Mr. Holloman — was organized” by members of the sheriff’s office with Owens’ and Pridgen’s assistance and knowledge. And Finch was subsequently “framed” for the murder to protect the sheriff’s office from discovery of its illegal activity.
The lawsuit alleges that Holloman ran a gambling operation in the back room and dealt in stolen goods. He was known to have a safe with cash in the back of the store, the lawsuit alleges. In December 1975, Holloman was arrested and charged with receiving stolen property, according to the lawsuit.
There were also several pieces of favorable evidence that were withheld from Finch’s defense. That included a second autopsy that contradicted Jones’ account of what occurred that night. That second autopsy report stated that Holloman died as a result of “multiple gunshot wounds” and not a “shotgun wound,” which was described in the first autopsy.
The pathologist who performed the first autopsy stated in an affidavit given to Duke that he was incorrect when he concluded Holloman was killed by a shotgun.
Jones had also identified an alternate murder suspect in photo lineup conducted four days after Finch was arrested. Duke’s Innocence Project didn’t discover that until 2011, when its attorneys finally got their hands on an SBI report.
That alternate suspect was also charged with first-degree murder in Holloman’s death. He was never tried. After two years, the state dropped the charge and didn’t cite a reason.
The alternate suspect, identified in documents as Charles Lewis, was living and working at the Forest Inn Motel between 1975 and 1976. That was one of three motels where the prostitution rings occurred.
That in itself was a motive for the sheriff’s office to divert attention from a real investigation into the killing and instead put the blame on someone else, lawyers say. Lewis, the lawsuit claims, had direct knowledge of the illegal activity going on at the motel.
The lawsuit contends that on at least one occasion, Lewis had been approached by someone at the sheriff’s office about participating in a “heist with other known criminals.” “Lewis was told he would be allowed to keep the money from the heist if it were successful,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges that Owens “concealed evidence” implicating Lewis. The lawsuit also alleges Owens withheld this evidence from the prosecutor at the time.
ARREST IN SIMILAR ROBBERIES
During Finch’s trial, his attorney called Otis Walston to testify that on the night of Holloman’s murder, he had given a ride to Tony Horton and several other black men who allegedly had a sawed-off shotgun and a second gun, according to the lawsuit. Walston had given that information to Owens, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges Owens knew that in early June 1976, a few weeks before Finch’s trial, warrants had been issued by the sheriff’s office charging Horton with three country store armed robberies in Wilson County between February and March 1976 — two of which Horton allegedly robbed within five days of Holloman’s store robbery.
Owens did not inform the district attorney about the warrants, the lawsuit contends. That evidence, the suit alleges, would have allowed Finch’s defense attorney to argue that another man pulled the trigger that night.
“By intentionally concealing such evidence from the district attorney’s office at the time of Ray Finch’s trial, defendant Owens violated Ray Finch’s constitutional right to a fair trial,” the suit claims.
At the time of Finch’s trial, prosecutors included a No. 1 buck shotgun shell. Jurors were allowed to examine the buckshot allegedly found in Finch’s Carolina blue Cadillac and a piece of lead allegedly removed from Holloman’s body during his autopsy.
Wednesday’s lawsuit claims the shotgun shell was planted in Finch’s car.
“There was no shotgun shell in the ashtray in the back seat of Finch’s car on Feb. 14, 1976,” the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit also alleges that Owens concealed an SBI ballistics report from the district attorney prior to and during Finch’s 1976 trial.
But SBI documents later discovered by Duke’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic painted a different picture.
Owens had indeed submitted the projectile in the case to the SBI shortly after the killing. According to the SBI ballistics report, Owens sent that evidence off to the lab on Feb. 18, 1976 — five days after the killing. The findings were returned to Owens on March 29, 1976.
The shotgun shell allegedly found in Finch’s car didn’t match the lead removed from Holloman’s body, according to the report and court records.
Finch’s attorneys didn’t discover that fact until 2013. Part of the lawsuit claims that the SBI’s former lawyer John Watters “deliberately concealed and withheld” that information for years from Finch’s attorneys.
‘AL AND JUNE’
That ballistics report listed Lewis as one of the suspects in the 1976 case. In a separate SBI report obtained in 2011, Jones, the alleged eyewitness in the case, had also identified Lewis in a photographic lineup four days after Finch was arrested. Jones’ identification of Lewis was consistent with what Finch had told investigators: Lewis admitted to him he was involved in the armed robbery and Holloman’s killing, according to previous reports in The Wilson Times.
Finch’s attorneys contend in addition to the ballistics report, the alternate suspect identification had also been withheld from Finch. Finch’s attorneys have previously pointed out that both Owens and the prosecutor told the court and jury that despite the opportunity, Jones didn’t identify Lewis as one of the killers, when in fact, he had, according to court documents.
Lewis was charged with first-degree murder in Holloman’s death the same day Jones identified him, according to Wilson Times research.
Charges against Lewis were dismissed on Jan. 23, 1978, according to court documents.
“No explanation was given for the voluntary dismissal,” according to an SBI report obtained in 2011.
Owens testified in 2013 that he had suspected Finch as a person involved in the crime even before he arrived at the murder scene and before interviewing Jones or any other person, attorneys have said. Owens claimed for the first time under oath in 2013 that the suspicion was based on a vague tip earlier in the week by two people only identified as “Al and June.”
He went on to say the informants allegedly told him Finch intended to rob an “unidentified store at some unspecific time,” according to the 2013 hearing. Owens also admitted during the hearing that he had no reason to even suspect that Finch would commit such a serious act, since his prior criminal activity was just “nickel and dime” offenses.
In 1979, former SBI agent Alan McMahan was assigned to investigate whether Finch had been framed by Pridgen and Owens to protect the person who had committed the murder but who had knowledge of Pridgen and Owens soliciting bribes to protect a prostitution ring operating in Wilson County.
Finch had written a letter to former Wilson County Sheriff L.G. Taylor, who succeeded Pridgen. Finch said his conviction was the result of unjust acts by Pridgen and Owens. Finch also alleged in the letter that Pridgen and Owens knew who actually committed the murder. Taylor requested the SBI’s assistance regarding Finch’s allegations in the letter.
The lawsuit claims McMahan, the former SBI agent, deprived Finch of his constitutional rights by “covering up and concealing” “evidence” that Finch’s arrest and conviction were the result of Pridgen’s and Owens’ “corrupt and illegal practices.”