Murder exoneree Ray Finch awaits Cooper's pardon
‘Y’all not thought about me?’ Application pending for 19 months
Olivia Neeley | Times
Ray Finch, 83, and his daughter Kat Jones-Bailey speak with Finch's other children about how much they've enjoyed being around each other since his release. Finch served more than 43 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. A federal court deemed him innocent and overturned his conviction in 2019. A year and a half later, Finch is still awaiting a pardon of innocence from the governor that would allow him to seek state compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.
It’s like leaving them in prison after they’ve been declared innocent. The state does nothing for a person who has been wrongfully convicted unless they get a pardon of innocence from the governor. He’s the gatekeeper.”
— Jim Coleman, law professor and Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic co-director
When Ray Finch and his family found out he wasn’t on Gov. Roy Cooper’s pardon of innocence list in December, they were all disappointed.
“It didn’t make me feel too good,” Finch said recently while seated on a couch in daughter’s home, where he lives.
Finch, who turned 83 last week, spent 43 years in prison in the killing of Richard “Shadow” Holloman, who was gunned down in a failed robbery attempt inside a Black Creek country store on Feb. 13, 1976.
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 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 after more than four decades of wrongful imprisonment. The Wilson County District Attorney’s Office formally dismissed the 1976 murder charge against him.
North Carolina has an established fund for those who have been wrongfully imprisoned and are innocent. But to access that compensation, the governor must grant Finch a pardon of innocence.
Finch would be entitled to $50,000 for each year he was imprisoned. While that sum would equal roughly $2.1 million, state law caps the maximum compensation at $750,000.
A pardon is required to petition the N.C. Industrial Commission for the money, so Finch is at the governor’s mercy. The oldest North Carolina exoneree on the books, Finch is now in failing health.
It’s been a year and half since Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which represented Finch, applied for a pardon of innocence on his behalf.
Neither Finch nor his attorneys have heard from the governor’s office on where the application stands.
“The state has received Mr. Finch’s application, and it is under review,” Cooper press secretary Dory MacMillan told The Wilson Times this week.
‘THEY DECLARED HIM INNOCENT’
Finch’s daughter, Kat Jones-Bailey, said while she and her siblings were thrilled with their father’s release from prison, family finances are strained. The state hasn’t provided any support.
“All they did was put me out of prison,” Finch said. “They ain’t gave me nothing. They haven’t offered nothing.”
Jones-Bailey said the system failed her father terribly.
“But for nobody to take responsibility for it, now that he’s out, that’s the sad part,” she said. “Nobody is standing up and saying, ‘We are going to take responsibility.’”
Finch’s daughter said Cooper granting her father the pardon of innocence would be a significant step toward righting a wrong. And state law grants Cooper that power.
“That pardon is what’s truly important,” Jones-Bailey said. “Not just because they need to give him something, but it’s because he deserves it. They declared him innocent. He got out because he was wrongfully accused.”
‘YOU CAN’T GET A STRONGER CASE’
Jim Coleman, Duke University School of Law professor and co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, said the state money available for people who were wrongfully convicted isn’t based on fault.
“All you have to do is show you were innocent,” Coleman said. “It’s the state’s way of apologizing to someone who has been a victim of a miscarriage of justice and compensating him for the unwarranted loss of liberty. That’s what a pardon of innocence is. The court itself said Ray was innocent. You can’t get a stronger case than that.”
Coleman said the state compensation serves as recognition that the criminal justice system erred.
But a thicket of red tape separates exonerees from that money, he said, because a pardon of innocence is required to apply even if courts have deemed a person innocent, overturned his conviction, dismissed the charges against him and unconditionally released him from prison.
“It’s like leaving them in prison after they’ve been declared innocent,” Coleman said. “The state does nothing for a person who has been wrongfully convicted unless they get a pardon of innocence from the governor. He’s the gatekeeper.”
Coleman said people exonerated after erroneous convictions should never have been imprisoned in the first place.
“And if it turns out that your conviction was unlawful, then a person should be restored to the position he was in before he was accused of the crime, which is innocence,” he said.
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 said the state of North Carolina would have surely executed an innocent man if not for that ruling.
Soon after Finch’s release, former state Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield sent Cooper a letter urging him to grant Finch a pardon of innocence, writing, “The profound act of a pardon will heal many wounds caused by this injustice.”
“We cannot undo the time and potential memories that Mr. Finch and his family have lost,” Farmer-Butterfield wrote. “However, with your help, we can find a way to make the next part of his life a fruitful and prosperous one.”
Rep. Linda Cooper-Suggs, who now holds Farmer-Butterfield’s former House District 24 seat, said she also supports Finch’s pardon of innocence.
Legislative assistant Anna Meadows told the Times that Cooper-Suggs has advocated for Finch in several phone calls to the governor’s office. She sent Cooper a Tuesday letter urging him to grant Finch’s pardon since he was wrongfully convicted and spent “43 long years languishing in prison.”
“Mr. Finch is currently 83 and in poor health,” Cooper-Suggs wrote. “His means are very limited to take care of his medical expenses. As you are aware, until he receives a pardon from your office, he cannot receive restitution. His life, in effect, has been taken from him as well as his ability to earn a living, and he now needs resources to live. His family has been deprived of his presence for all those years, and now Mr. Finch seeks peace of mind in his final years spent with them.”
Cooper-Suggs stressed that the justice system’s mistakes robbed Finch of his freedom for four decades.
“Again, I urge you to grant Mr. Finch a pardon of innocence,” she wrote. “After so much has been unjustly taken from him, it is the least the state can do to secure a better future for him.”
‘HE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO WAIT ANY LONGER’
As a lifelong Wilson County resident and former judge, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield said he “strongly” supports Finch’s pardon application.
“Mr. Finch was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit and has now been completely exonerated,” Butterfield told The Wilson Times. “He deserves restitution from the state for his wrongful incarceration.”
Butterfield said the pardon of innocence should be expedited.
Because pardons for convictions in the state court system are handled at the state level, Butterfield said ethics rules bar him, as an elected federal official, from writing to the governor on Finch’s behalf. But he expressed full support for Finch’s pardon.
“It is my understanding that Mr. Finch is 83 years old and in poor health, but justice must be served — not based on these factors, but because it is the right thing to do,” Butterfield said. “Mr. Finch was wrongfully imprisoned for 43 years. He shouldn’t have to wait any longer for the state to validate his innocence.”
WHAT ABOUT FINCH?
Before issuing five pardons of innocence in December, Cooper hadn’t granted anyone clemency during his first term as governor. Executive clemency actions include sentence commutations, pardons of forgiveness and pardons of innocence.
Cooper pardoned 65-year-old Ronnie Long, who spent slightly more time in prison than Finch. Long’s conviction was overturned in August, and he received his pardon of innocence less than four months later.
It’s been 19 months since Finch’s conviction was overturned.
While the five men Cooper pardoned were innocent and the courts vacated their sentences, Finch’s case was slightly different. Coleman said the 4th Circuit found that Finch was innocent over the state’s opposition.
“There is nothing more Ray could have done to show that he was innocent,” Coleman said. “Nor is it possible the governor has a higher standard of innocence. If he did, how did Ronnie meet it and Ray did not?”
While Finch is happy for Long, he’s perplexed at how comparatively quickly Long’s pardon application was approved.
“I don’t see how they did that,” Finch said. “Y’all not thought about me?”
Finch said he feels like no one cares about him.
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 Wrongful Convictions Clinic also represented Long.
Finch is ranked fourth among all United States exonerees for time served in prison, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Long is listed on the same registry and comes in ahead of Finch in third.
AN ‘OPEN’ PROCESS
If not for the December pardons, Coleman said Cooper would have been the first governor in more than 40 years who hadn’t granted clemency in some form.
Former Gov. Pat McCrory’s record on clemency is significantly better in terms of establishing a review process and evaluating applications on their merits, Coleman said. He says the current pardon process is shrouded in secrecy.
“There was an open process” in the McCrory administration, Coleman said. “We were able to get information from the office, and we were able to respond to questions. We were able to get meetings. McCrory met with us. They had a real process.”
Coleman said Cooper’s office recently stopped releasing information on clemency applications. He said he believes the public deserves to know who’s seeking a pardon or commutation.
The Wilson Times sought details on current pardon procedures, including the number of clemency applications the governor has received, how many have been denied and granted and how many are still under consideration.
After repeated requests, Cooper’s spokespeople said matters related to pardon and clemency are exempt from the N.C. Public Records Act and the governor’s office has no more information to share.
“First, the public deserves to know who is seeking clemency,” Coleman and Duke Law Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility colleagues Jamie Lau and Theresa Newman wrote in a News & Observer guest column last July. “We cannot know if the governor is carrying out the will of the people if he hides from view information that every governor in recent memory made public. Also, failure to release these names robs the public of the ability to provide comments on candidates under consideration for clemency.”
THE FIGHT CONTINUES
Finch’s children said it’s a daunting process when you fight for years to get your loved one freed from prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Exoneration brings relief, but there’s an emotional toll that comes with being released into a world you haven’t known for more than 43 years.
“Then you’ve got to fight some more,” Finch’s daughter Kat Jones-Bailey said, referring to the pardon application.
Others in Finch’s shoes may lose hope after battling the bureaucracy, she said, but Finch and his family have vowed to never give up. Finch maintained his innocence and pursued appeals for four decades.
Finch’s children said they feel they’ve become even closer since their father’s release.
“We always saw each other, but we get to see more of each other because of him,” Bailey-Jones said. “This is what I’ve always wanted. I’m a family-oriented person. To see everybody together, it fills my heart with joy.”
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