'Long time coming': Finch family cheers governor's pardon
Composite image by Allison Moore Pridgen | Times file photos
Ray Finch is shown before his exoneration at top and after his release from prison at bottom. Gov. Roy Cooper granted Finch a pardon of innocence on Wednesday.
When Katherine Jones-Bailey called her father Wednesday afternoon, she couldn’t stop shouting and crying.
“Daddy, you got your pardon,” she told him. “You did it!”
Gov. Roy Cooper had just granted a pardon of innocence to her father, 83-year-old Ray Finch, who spent 43 years imprisoned for a 1976 murder he didn’t commit.
Finch is currently hospitalized in another county due to an illness, and that’s why she had to call her father to tell him the extraordinary news.
“This has been a long time coming,” Jones-Bailey told The Wilson Times on Wednesday afternoon. “But God saw fit. I’m just so overjoyed.”
She said she told her father she was giving him a high-five over the phone.
Finch patiently waited for nearly two years in order for Cooper to grant him a pardon of innocence after he was released from a North Carolina prison.
State officials said Wednesday that the Office of Executive Clemency, the Office of the General Counsel and the governor thoroughly vetted Finch’s pardon application.
“I have carefully reviewed Charles Ray Finch’s case and am granting him a Pardon of Innocence,” Cooper said in a Wednesday statement. “Mr. Finch and others who have been wrongly convicted deserve to have that injustice fully and publicly acknowledged.”
The pardon makes Finch eligible to file a compensation claim under state law. The N.C. Industrial Commission reviews those claims.
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.
Finch’s family and his children said they are grateful for each and every person who has supported their family, Finch’s innocence and pardon.
“I’m glad Cooper did the right thing,” Jones-Bailey said. “I knew it would happen. I’m just so happy. It’s like they are letting him out all over again.”
Finch spent more than four decades 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.
‘HIS TOTAL VINDICATION IS COMPLETE’
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. The Wilson County District Attorney’s Office formally dismissed the 1976 murder charge against him not long after that.
“We are very happy for Mr. Finch,” said Jim Coleman, Duke University School of Law professor and co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic. “His total vindication is complete.”
The Duke Innocence Project, which is a university initiative and not a state innocence commission, agreed to take Finch’s case in 2001. It was its first one. He’s since been represented by Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which was instrumental in securing his release and proving Finch’s innocence. The clinic also filed the petition with Cooper’s office seeking a pardon of innocence on Aug. 6, 2019.
Finch is the oldest North Carolina exoneree on the books. He ranks second in the state as having served the most time for a crime he didn’t commit. Ronnie Long, 65, who spent slightly more time in prison that Finch, is ranked first. 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.
Nationally, Finch ranks fourth as having served the most time being wrongfully imprisoned, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
COUNTY SETTLES LAWSUIT
Last month, Wilson County signed off on a $2 million settlement for Finch’s wrongful conviction.
The negotiated settlement removed 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.
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 then 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.
SUIT PENDING AGAINST SBI OFFICIALS
The federal lawsuit is still pending against former N.C. State Bureau of Investigation agent Alan McMahan and the SBI’s former counsel, John Watters. They are both being sued in their individual capacities.
The complaint in U.S. District Court accuses McMahan of “willful blindness” while he was tasked with investigating whether Finch was framed for the murder in 1979.
Finch and his lawyers also contend that Watters concealed files in 2003 when the Duke 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 have denied that they violated Finch’s constitutional rights and that they were part of any “cover-up,” according to court filings from their attorneys.
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
A second autopsy was performed four days after Holloman’s 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.
SENTENCED TO DEATH
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. He was then sentenced to life in prison.
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.
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