Our Opinion: Suit raises troubling questions in Finch’s wrongful conviction

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It wasn’t a mere mistake, sloppy detective work or prosecutorial tunnel vision that locked Charles Ray Finch away for a murder he didn’t commit, a bombshell lawsuit alleges.

Instead, lawyers contend crooked cops framed Finch for the 1976 killing to cover up the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office’s alleged involvement in a robbery ring.

Attorney David Rudolf sued Wilson County in federal court this week, charging that Finch’s civil and constitutional rights were violated during a period of widespread corruption that resulted in former Sheriff Robin Pridgen’s conviction on racketeering charges for taking bribes from prostitution houses.

Finch’s counsel sued Sheriff Calvin Woodard in his official capacity and named other defendants in their individual capacities including Tony McCoy Owens — who served as Pridgen’s chief deputy — former State Bureau of Investigation agent Alan McMahan and former SBI attorney John Watters.

Owens is accused of helping to frame Finch for Richard “Shadow” Holloman’s murder by hiding evidence before and during Finch’s trial and lying during a SBI probe that followed Finch’s conviction, according to the lawsuit.

While the allegations against Pridgen were proven — a jury convicted the disgraced sheriff of violating the federal racketeering statute known as RICO — Owens was acquitted on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements to a grand jury.

The new accusations against Owens relate to his work as lead investigator in Holloman’s February 1976 killing. Finch’s suit paints a disturbing picture of a patsy, a rush to judgment and a decades-long coverup.

Instead of protecting country stores from thieves and robbers, the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office orchestrated heists at locations known to have a large quantity of cash, Rudolf writes in the civil complaint. Holloman’s convenience store was one such business allegedly targeted for a holdup, according to the suit, with deputies planning to split the loot with three robbers they recruited.

Lester Floyd Jones, an employee in Holloman’s store who allegedly witnessed the robbery, provided deputies with a vague description of the shooter and said the getaway car was a black Pontiac with one broken headlight.

Finch drove a blue Cadillac, and alibi witnesses said he was gambling in downtown Wilson — miles away from Holloman’s store in Black Creek — when the 9 p.m. shooting occurred.

The lawsuit notes that Jones’ description of the trigger man evolved to include more detail and that Finch was marked for identification in three lineups that were ruled inadmissible decades later. Finch was the only person in the lineup wearing a coat, which experts say was a cue for Jones to identify Finch as the robber.

Rudolf accuses deputies of planting a shotgun shell in Finch’s car, an explosive claim that would support the theory of a setup if proven true.

“There was no shotgun shell in the ashtray in the back seat of Finch’s car on Feb. 14, 1976,” the lawsuit contends.

Finch was convicted of Holloman’s murder and received a death sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state’s capital punishment laws in 1976.

For 43 years, Finch languished in prison while proclaiming his innocence and pursuing justice. Duke University’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic unearthed new evidence that eventually led to Finch’s release.

Following a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that affirmed Finch’s innocence, a federal district judge overturned his murder conviction this spring and Finch was finally released from prison on May 23. His attorneys are seeking a pardon from Gov. Roy Cooper, which would allow Finch to petition the state for $750,000 in compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.

Cooper’s press office told The Wilson Times’ editorial page last month that Finch’s pardon application is under review. This week’s lawsuit represents another opportunity for restorative justice. A flawed system stole four decades of Finch’s life.

It isn’t clear at this early stage if Finch’s claims of conspiracy and coverup can be proven in court. Whether the sheriff’s office framed Finch for Holloman’s murder or whether investigators were woefully negligent, the end result is the same — a miscarriage of justice.

Pridgen’s public corruption is a stain on Wilson County, and so are the systemic failures that resulted in Finch’s prosecution, conviction and incarceration. A settlement that compensates Finch for the indignities he’s suffered may be the necessary outcome to ensure the grievous errors made in this case will never be repeated.