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Charles Ray Finch never gave up. Instead, he fought for more than 43 years to gain his freedom.
On Thursday, a federal judge ordered Finch’s release.
In January, the U.S. 4th Circuit of Appeals declared the 81-year-old innocent, vacating a murder conviction. Shortly before 4:30 p.m., Finch left Greene Correctional Institution with his family by his side. And he couldn’t stop smiling.
“I’m just glad to be free,” Finch said. “I feel good.”
Finch is the oldest and longest-serving inmate in North Carolina to have his conviction overturned, according to research by The Wilson Times.
Finch had been serving a life sentence in the killing of Richard “Shadow” Holloman, who was gunned down in a failed robbery attempt inside his Black Creek country store on Feb. 13, 1976. Finch has maintained his innocence since the time of his arrest.
The Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which represents Finch, has worked for decades trying to get Finch’s murder conviction overturned. When the group took Finch’s case in 2001, he was its first client.
“It’s incredible,” said Jim Coleman, Duke University School of Law professor and co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic. “We feel an enormous sense of vindication.”
The 4th Circuit ruling showed that not only were Finch’s constitutional rights violated during three highly suggestive police lineups, but that no reasonable juror would have convicted him based on the totality of both old and new evidence.
A Wilson County jury convicted Finch of first-degree murder, and a judge subsequently sentenced him to die via gas chamber. But on the day he was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled North Carolina’s mandatory death penalty law was unconstitutional.
Finch’s attorneys and his family said the state of North Carolina would have surely executed an innocent man if it had not been for that ruling.
During his 1976 trial, several witnesses testified that Finch was nowhere near the country store at the time of the murder. They testified he was playing poker in downtown Wilson with them — several miles away from the scene.
‘IT’S BEEN WORTH THE FIGHT’
Finch’s family and children said they could barely explain their emotions Thursday.
“I’m just overjoyed right now,” said Finch’s daughter, Katherine Jones-Bailey, who was 2 years old at the time of his arrest. “It’s a day we’ve been praying for. I knew the miracle was going to happen. This has been a long time coming. It’s been worth the wait. It’s been worth the fight.”
Finch said he was confident his day would come. He was also grateful to his attorneys who believed in his innocence and worked to free him.
“It’s been so long,” Finch said. “They did a good job.”
‘THE PAST IS THE PAST’
After his release, relatives, friends and his attorneys met in the parking lot of Maury Chapel Free Will Baptist Church. Finch’s family members said they don’t hold any ill will to those who wrongfully imprisoned him. They are just glad he’s finally home.
“Leave the past in the past,” Jones-Bailey said. “My dad can now look forward to a future.”
Finch’s family members said they have relied on their faith through the years. Jones-Bailey said while it did take her dad a long time, he has since forgiven those who put him in prison.
She also said the slain store owner’s family deserves justice, too.
“They still didn’t get justice,” she said. “We all end up suffering at my dad’s expense.”
In addition to the rest of Finch’s family, there was one particular family member who was also there Thursday to see him released. His cousin Helen Dew remained by Finch’s side for decades. She wrote him. She visited him. She never gave up on him either. But her health began declining recently, and she has dementia. Finch’s family knew she had to be there to witness his release.
After the cameras cleared and she saw her cousin for the first time outside those prison walls, she began to cry.
“Thank you, God,” she said. “I’m glad that man is standing.”
Dew, who is in her late 70s and can barely walk, made her way to Finch. She nearly collapsed in his arms and broke down and cried. It was in that moment she knew he had truly been set free.
Several factors contributed to Finch’s wrongful conviction, his attorneys have said, including flawed and suggestive police lineups relying on the unreliability of eyewitness identification.
During Finch’s 1976 trial, Wilson County prosecutors claimed Holloman was killed at close range with a shotgun. They also argued that the alleged eyewitness to the shooting, Lester Floyd Jones, who worked with Holloman at the store, saw Finch shoot Holloman with that shotgun.
The Duke Innocence Project, which is a university initiative and not a state innocence commission, agreed to take Finch’s case in 2001. Throughout the course of the 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 document contradicts Jones’ account of what happened that night in 1976. 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.
Coleman said the slug removed from Holloman’s body was not a shotgun pellet but was a bullet that came from a handgun.
Prosecutors’ reliance on the alleged eyewitnesses in the case is also problematic, Coleman has said.
Jones gave a “vague” description of the suspect, who he said pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and killed his boss at close range, attorneys argued. Jones never described or documented what the killer’s face actually looked like but only described what the killer was wearing — a stocking over his head.
Finch’s attorneys also claim that Jones’ description of the killer evolved over time.
By the time of Finch’s trial, Jones had included the suspect’s weight, height, complexion and clothing, according to Finch’s attorneys. And that wasn’t mentioned until a pretrial hearing the day before Finch’s murder trial, according to records.
Finch’s arrest created a domino effect, according to attorneys. Finch was also “marked” for identification in three “suggestive” police lineups. Finch was the only person wearing a coat and experts say that was a cue for Jones to pick Finch as the perpetrator.
Former Wilson County sheriff’s deputy Tony Owens, who was the lead investigator in the 1976 case, said in 2013 that the lineups were “unfair.”
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 Carolina blue Cadillac and a piece of lead allegedly removed from Holloman’s body during his autopsy.
The report revealed the ammunition didn’t match. But that wasn’t disclosed to Finch’s defense either, an exoneration petition states. Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic lawyers didn’t get their hands on that report until November 2013.