In July 1976, false forensic testimony and an eyewitness identification manipulated by police misconduct sent Charles Ray Finch to North Carolina’s death row. Forty-three years later, he has become the 166thperson in the United States since 1973 to be exonerated after having been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. On June 14, 2019, after a federal appeals court said Finch had proven his “actual innocence” and a federal district court had given the state 30 days to decide whether to attempt to retry him, the Wilson County District Attorney quietly and without advance notice to counsel formally dismissed all chargesagainst Finch, completing his exoneration.
Finch is the second person in 2019 to be exonerated more than forty years after having been sentenced to death. In March, Clifford Williams, Jr. was exonerated 42 years after having been sentenced to death in Florida. According to the Death Penalty Information Center innocence list, Finch’s case was the 10th time this decade an exoneration has taken 30 years or more. All of those exonerees have been black. In 18 cases—more than 10% of the exonerations—it has taken a quarter century before the exoneree’s rights have been vindicated. The 166th exoneration came just days before the nation’s 1,500th execution on June 20. In the modern era of the U.S. death penalty, there has now been one exoneration for every 9 executions.
Finch was wrongly convicted in 1976 of murdering a grocery store clerk during a robbery. He was sentenced to death under North Carolina’s mandatory death sentencing law, which was struck down as unconstitutional soon thereafter. In 1977, the North Carolina Supreme Court vacated Finch’s death sentence and resentenced him to life in prison. In January 2019, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found him “actually innocent” and sent the case back to a lower court for adjudication of constitutional violations relating to his innocence claim. He was freed on May 23, 2019, when U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle formally overturned his conviction and gave prosecutors 30 days to decide whether to retry him. With the dismissal of charges, Finch has now been fully exonerated.
In the Fourth Circuit decision that declared Finch “actually innocent,” Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote that “Finch has overcome the exacting standard for actual innocence through sufficiently alleging and providing new evidence of a constitutional violation and through demonstrating that the totality of the evidence, both old and new, would likely fail to convince any reasonable juror of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” The court identified major problems with the evidence used to convict Finch. He was subjected to “suggestive lineups,” in which he was the only suspect dressed in a three-quarter length jacket, the same style of clothing that the eyewitness, Lester Floyd Jones, said the perpetrator was wearing. Such lineups have since been declared unconstitutional. “These procedural issues support Finch’s allegations of constitutional error that he was misidentified by Jones,” Judge Gregory wrote. “No reasonable juror would likely find Finch guilty beyond a reasonable doubt if it knew the high likelihood that he was misidentified by Jones both outside and inside the courtroom as a murder suspect because of the impermissibly suggestive lineups.” The decision also noted that Jones – who the court said “had cognitive issues, struggled with alcoholism and had issues with short-term memory recall” – told police that the killer was armed with a sawed-off shotgun and had never mentioned to the police that the shooter had any facial hair. At the time Holloman was killed, Finch had a long beard and distinctive sideburns and at trial Jones changed his description of the shooter to fit Finch’s appearance. A new review of the autopsy evidence decades after the crime disclosed that Holloman had been killed with a pistol, not a shotgun and new ballistics evidence contradicted prosecution claims that the shells found at the crime scene matched a shotgun shell found in Finch’s car. Other witnesses also indicated they had been pressured into providing testimony implicating Finch. “This new evidence,” the court said, “not only undercuts the state’s physical evidence, but it also discredits the reliability of Jones.”
Jim Coleman, co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, represented Finch for more than 15 years. He said that when he took on the case, he contacted every major state official, seeking review of Finch’s case. “The worst thing that we encounter in the work that we do are indifferent officials—police officers, sheriffs, prosecutors and judges—who think that justice has been done when there is a conviction, and nothing that happens after a conviction matters,” Coleman said. “We have a human system and therefore we make mistakes. It is the obligation of everybody in the system to be concerned when mistakes are made and to take action to correct them.” An editorial in The Wilson Times, which chronicled Finch’s case, called the case a “cautionary tale to law enforcement officers and prosecutors” and noted that the person who actually killed Richard Holloman was never held accountable. Finch’s daughter, Katherine Jones-Bailey said the wrongful conviction victimized both her family and Holloman’s. “They still didn’t get justice,” she said. “We all end up suffering at my dad’s expense.”
Finch spent 43 years in prison, more than any other death-row exoneree in modern times. He is the ninth person exonerated from death row in North Carolina. Seven of the North Carolina death-row exonerees are black; an eighth is Latino. All of the North Carolina death-row exonerations involved witness perjury or false accusation, and eight also involved official misconduct. Those two factors are the most prevalent causes of wrongful capital convictions in the United States.
Rose Wong, Free after 43 years: How Duke’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic freed an innocent man, Duke Chronicle, June 20, 2019; Editorial, Our Opinion: Finch’s exoneration a cautionary tale for cops, prosecutors, The Wilson Times, May 28, 2019.
Read DPIC’s Press Release on Charles Ray Finch’s exoneration.