At the governor’s mercy: Cooper silent on Ray Finch pardon
Drew C. Wilson | Times
Ray Finch wants to know why Gov. Roy Cooper hasn't pardoned him yet — two years after he was exonerated in a 1976 murder case that put him behind bars for 43 years.
Ray Finch has one lingering question after Wilson County agreed to a $2 million settlement in his wrongful conviction lawsuit.
“Why won’t he pardon me?” the 83-year-old Finch asked.
Finch is still at the mercy of Gov. Roy Cooper, who has issued pardons of innocence to six people since December.
“Why doesn’t he do it?” Finch said on Tuesday, the day after his settlement became official.
Finch spent 43 years imprisoned for the killing of Richard “Shadow” Holloman, who was gunned down in a failed robbery attempt inside a country store on Feb. 13, 1976.
When recalling his four decades behind bars for someone else’s crime, Finch has always stayed hopeful and calm.
While the county agreed to pay for its role in the injustice, Finch said the state still owes him more than that. Finch is entitled to $50,000 for each year he was wrongfully imprisoned. While that sum would equal roughly $2.1 million, state law caps the maximum compensation at $750,000.
Although it’s been more than two years since he was exonerated and released from prison, Finch can’t receive the $750,000 until Cooper pardons him. In North Carolina, the governor has more power than the courts when it comes to compensating people the justice system deems innocent.
Cooper’s office told The Wilson Times on Thursday that Finch’s pardon application is still under review. It's the same response the state provided in February.
‘THEY TAKE SO LONG’
For decades, Finch’s lawyers fought for his release through hearings and court filings.
In January 2019, the U.S. 4th Circuit of Appeals ruled in Finch’s favor, declaring him actually innocent of the crime.
In a unanimous decision, the three-judge panel said three highly suggestive police lineups violated Finch’s constitutional rights and concluded that no reasonable juror would have convicted Finch based on the totality of both old and new evidence.
On May 23, 2019, a federal judge overturned Finch’s 1976 conviction, and he was subsequently freed.
Finch’s son, Michael Taylor, said you can’t put a price on something so priceless — 43 years behind those prison walls for a crime his father didn’t commit.
“If I did all this time, why should I have to wait for my pardon even though I’m innocent of the crime?” Taylor said. “The charges have been cleared.”
Finch said the process to obtain a pardon of innocence in North Carolina is tiresome.
“They take so long,” he said.
Finch said after he was freed, the state left him with nothing.
“They said, ‘We’ll drop him out there, and we don’t care what happens to him,’” the 83-year-old said. “It makes me feel bad.”
While most would be filled with anger from what his lawyers call a true miscarriage of justice, Finch’s quiet, yet relentless spirit of hope is what drives him.
But he also feels forgotten, especially by the same system that wrongfully imprisoned him in the first place.
From the day of his 1976 arrest, Finch has never wavered in maintaining his innocence.
After a Wilson County jury convicted Finch of first-degree murder in 1976, a judge subsequently sentenced him to die via gas chamber. But on the day Finch was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled North Carolina’s mandatory death penalty law unconstitutional.
Finch’s attorneys and his family have said the state of North Carolina would have surely executed an innocent man if not for that ruling.
“They gave me a death sentence for the crime they said I did,” Finch said.
“They really would have killed him,” Taylor said. “I think about that a lot.”
PARDONS OF INNOCENCE
Finch is the oldest North Carolina exoneree on the books.
Nationally, Finch ranks fourth as having served the most time being wrongfully imprisoned, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Finch, along with his family and elected officials here, have called upon Cooper to pardon Finch as soon as possible due to his age and failing health. Neither Finch nor his attorneys have heard from the governor’s office on where the application stands.
Before issuing five pardons of innocence in December, Cooper hadn’t granted anyone clemency during his first term as governor. Cooper did pardon 65-year-old Ronnie Long, who spent slightly more time in prison than Finch.
Long’s conviction was overturned in August 2020. Less than four months later, Long received his pardon from Cooper in December.
In early April, the state paid Long $750,000 for the 44 years he spent in prison — the maximum amount he could receive under state law.
A few weeks after that payout, Cooper granted his sixth pardon of innocence to 58-year-old Darryl Howard of Durham. Howard spent two decades in prison before a trial judge vacated his two murder convictions.
Howard, who was released four years ago, was convicted in the 1991 killings of 29-year-old Doris Washington and her 13-year-old daughter, Nishonda. DNA evidence showed he wasn’t involved in the rapes or murders.
THE COUNTY SETTLEMENT
Wilson County commissioners approved a $2 million settlement for Finch prior to their annual budget work session Monday evening.
“The Wilson County Board of Commissioners determined that this action in regards to Mr. Finch was appropriate,” states the resolution authorizing the settlement, which Chairman Rob Boyette signed on the board’s behalf. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Finch.”
That negotiated settlement removes Wilson County government; Sheriff Calvin Woodard in his official capacity; former Chief Deputy Tony Owens, who was the lead investigator in the case; and former deputy James Tant from a federal lawsuit Finch filed in December 2019 that seeks compensatory and punitive damages for his wrongful imprisonment.
Wilson County will make an initial $1 million payment to Finch, followed by $500,000 later this year and a final $500,000 payment next year, according to the resolution.
THE FEDERAL LAWSUIT
The lawsuit contends Finch’s wrongful imprisonment resulted from a pattern of “rampant” corruption in the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office at the time of his 1976 arrest and subsequent conviction. The suit claims the sheriff’s office not only framed Finch for the murder, but that several other officials had a hand in covering up evidence that could have freed him decades prior to his release.
'NO AMOUNT OF MONEY IS ADEQUATE'
Finch’s attorney, David Rudolf of the Charlotte-based law firm Rudolf Widenhouse, said he was ambivalent about the settlement.
While he’s happy that attorneys were able to negotiate a payout for Finch to live out the remainder of his life, Rudolf said “no amount of money is adequate for someone who was treated like that.”
Rudolf said litigation is a lengthy process that could have taken several years if not for the settlement agreement.
Assistant County Manager Ron Hunt told the Times on Monday that Finch’s $2 million settlement will come from the county budget.
Neither the county nor the sheriff’s office had liability insurance in 1976, Rudolf said.
Rudolf said he doesn’t know whether such insurance policies were common then, but the lack of coverage complicated settlement negotiations.
FORMER SBI OFFICIALS
With Wilson County and its ex-deputies dropped from the suit, Finch’s claims against former N.C. State Bureau of Investigation agent Alan McMahan and the SBI’s former counsel, John Watters, will proceed. They are both being sued in their individual capacities.
The lawsuit alleges there was “willful blindness” by McMahan, who was tasked with investigating whether Finch was framed for the murder in 1979.
The civil complaint also contends that Watters concealed files in 2003 when Duke University’s Innocence Project began its investigation, and that he went on to conceal files in 2008 and 2011.
Those files, which took Finch’s lawyers with the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic nearly a decade to obtain, eventually showed other favorable evidence withheld from Finch during his 1976 trial.
Both men deny that they violated Finch’s constitutional rights and that they were part of any “cover-up,” according to court filings from their attorneys.
THE 1976 MURDER CASE
On the night of the murder, Richard “Shadow” Holloman and his employee, Lester Floyd Jones, were closing up a country store on U.S. 117 in Wilson County. Three Black men approached them, one of whom asked Holloman to buy an Alka Seltzer package. A robbery attempt ensued.
During his 1976 trial, several witnesses testified that Finch was nowhere near the country store at the time of the murder. They testified that he was playing poker in downtown Wilson with them — several miles away from the scene.
Several factors contributed to Finch’s wrongful conviction, including flawed and suggestive police lineups relying on the unreliability of eyewitness identification.
In court, Wilson County prosecutors claimed Holloman was killed at close range with a shotgun. They also claimed that Jones, the eyewitness to the shooting, saw Finch shoot Holloman with that shotgun.
Jones gave a vague description of the perpetrator, who he said pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and killed his boss at close range. Jones never described the killer’s face. He said the man wore a stocking over his head.
Jones’ friend Bobby Taylor testified that several days after Jones identified Finch in a police lineup, he asked Taylor what Finch looked like because he may have identified him as the man who killed Holloman, according to original trial transcripts. Jones also told Taylor the killer shot Holloman in the back as well as the chest, which a second autopsy confirmed.
Attorneys have said Taylor would have never known that detail unless Jones told him.
A BLACK PONTIAC
Minutes after the killing, a state highway patrolman was first on the scene. That trooper told Jones to write everything he remembered about what happened. It’s the only documented account of Holloman’s murder, and it includes a vague description of the perpetrator.
The trooper also noted the description of what appeared to be the getaway car — a black Pontiac with one light out.
When police arrested Finch in downtown Wilson, he was driving a Carolina blue Cadillac.
Jones’ description of the killer evolved over time. When Finch faced his jury, Jones had included the suspect’s weight, height, complexion and clothing, according to Finch’s attorneys. Those details weren’t mentioned until a pretrial hearing the day before Finch was due in court, according to the original trial transcript.
Attorneys say Finch’s arrest created a domino effect. Finch was “marked” for identification in three “suggestive” police lineups. Finch was the only person in the lineups wearing a coat, and experts say that was a cue for Jones to pick Finch as the perpetrator.
SHOTGUN VS. HANDGUN
The Duke Innocence Project, which is a university initiative and not a state innocence commission, agreed to take Finch’s case in 2001. Throughout its investigation, the law clinic found key pieces of evidence, including a second autopsy that was performed four days after the murder by another medical examiner.
That autopsy report contradicts Jones’ account of the killing. The medical examiner who conducted the first autopsy and said Holloman was killed with a shotgun admitted years later in a sworn affidavit to Duke that he was wrong
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 blue Cadillac and a piece of lead removed from Holloman’s body during his autopsy.
The report revealed that the ammunition didn’t match. But that bombshell wasn’t disclosed to Finch’s defense. Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic lawyers didn’t get their hands on that report until November 2013.
The state also failed to disclose that Jones identified an alternate suspect in the murder case.
Jones identified the man in a photographic lineup four days after Finch was arrested. Duke’s Innocence Project didn’t discover that until 2011, when its attorneys finally obtained an SBI report.
That alternate suspect was also charged with first-degree murder in Holloman’s death. He was never tried. After two years, prosecutors dismissed the charge without citing a reason.
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