Our Opinion: Turkeys spared, but Wilson’s Ray Finch still seeks governor’s pardon

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A political Thanksgiving tradition observed last week likely struck Charles Ray Finch and his family as more galling than charming.

Gov. Roy Cooper spared 45-pound toms Orville and Wilbur from the butcher’s ax during an annual turkey pardoning ceremony at North Carolina’s Executive Mansion. The lighthearted affair included the obligatory handshakes, photo ops and Cooper’s “Thanksgiving-related dad jokes.”

Meanwhile, the 81-year-old Finch — who was released from prison in May after spending more than half his life behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit — is still awaiting word on his pardon application.

Attorneys for Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic sought a pardon of innocence on Finch’s behalf in late June. Five months have elapsed without Cooper dusting off his little-used pardon pen.

The Wilson Times’ editorial page asked the governor’s office on Monday whether Finch’s case is under review and did not receive a response before Wednesday’s press deadline.

When it comes to clemency, North Carolina isn’t known for its speedy disposition of justice. The state receives roughly 150 applications each year but has only granted six pardons since 2001, according to the Restoration of Rights Project, which publishes a 50-state comparison of pardon processes.

The organization classifies our state’s pardon rate as “rare,” while South Carolina’s rate is “frequent and regular.” There, the governor retains pardon power in capital cases and all other applications are reviewed by an appointed board that grants 300-400 pardons each year, a rate of 60-65%.

Of North Carolina’s more than 2,500 unanswered pardon requests since 2001, it isn’t clear whether Cooper and predecessors Pat McCrory, Bev Perdue and Mike Easley determined the applicants unworthy or whether the pleas languished, unread, on some staffer’s desk.

“The governor is not required to make any information concerning a denial of clemency public,” the American Bar Association explains in a primer on North Carolina’s pardon system.

Finch’s case demands Governor Cooper’s prompt attention. He is the oldest and longest-serving North Carolina inmate to have his conviction overturned. He also faced the gas chamber in 1976, and if not for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling the same year that ended North Carolina’s mandatory death penalty for murder, our state would have executed an innocent man.

A Wilson County jury convicted Finch of killing shopkeeper Richard “Shadow” Holloman in a failed robbery. Prosecutors used suggestive police lineups and bad ballistics evidence that was later debunked to send Finch to prison, where he continued to proclaim his innocence for more than 43 years.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals found Finch’s defense compelling, writing that no reasonable juror would have convicted Finch based on the totality of both old and new evidence. A unanimous three-judge panel sent the case back to U.S. District Court, where Judge Terrence Boyle vacated the conviction.

Finch has been fully exonerated, but he still needs a pardon of innocence from the governor in order to claim compensation for the time a broken legal system stole from him and his loved ones.

State law requires a pardon in order for exonerees to petition the N.C. Industrial Commission for compensatory payments. If a petition is granted, claimants receive $50,000 for each year they spent wrongfully incarcerated with a maximum payout of $750,000.

Finch has been deprived of the opportunity to pursue the career of his choice and pay into a pension or retirement savings plan. At age 81 and in ailing health, he needs compensation from the state in order to provide for his living expenses and medical care in the twilight of his life.

Granting a full pardon and paying damages would secure some measure of justice for a man who’s been denied fair treatment for four decades. There’s no excuse for gubernatorial foot-dragging. Justice delayed is justice denied.

While the chief executive of the ninth most-populous state has a full complement of lawyers and policy advisers at his disposal, Cooper has the ability to personally review and approve Finch’s pardon application. A four-term attorney general, Cooper has a facile legal mind. We’re confident he’d be appalled at the state’s handling of Finch’s prosecution and be moved to swift action.

Finch probably isn’t the only North Carolina exoneree whose claim merits clemency. It’s time our governor rolls up his sleeves and attends to the mounting pile of pardon applications awaiting a decision.

We don’t begrudge Cooper the cutesy custom of pardoning turkeys who’d otherwise be destined for dinner plates, but before next Thanksgiving’s ceremony rolls around, we ought to see more consideration given to people than poultry.