Courts say man convicted in 1976 Wilson County murder is innocent; could soon go free

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 Two Duke University law professors are working toward a common goal: justice for an 81-year-old man who has been serving a life sentence for murder since 1976.

James Coleman and Jamie Lau have combed through countless pages of documents to review Charles Ray Finch’s case. He’s claimed his innocence all along the way. Now Coleman and Lau are working to help everyone else see his point of view.

“If we are unwilling to objectively review those cases — if we’re unwilling because we believe in this notion that these convictions are infallible — then we’re going to have innocent people incarcerated in North Carolina, and that should be unacceptable to the public at large,” Lau said as he and Coleman sifted through thousands of pages of court documents. 

It’s all part of the evidence they’re using to try to free Finch. The 81-year-old has been serving a life sentence for murder since 1976. 

Finch was convicted of killing Richard Holloman at the Wilson County gas station he owned. The jury that found Finch guilty consisted of only one black juror. He was also sentenced to death.

“Ray was automatically sentenced to death on July 2, 1976. That was also the same day that the Supreme Court declared that North Carolina’s mandatory death penalty was unconstitutional. So, as a result of that, Ray’s sentence was commuted to life and he’s been in prison since,” Coleman said. 

Finch has always claimed his innocence. But, it wasn’t until decades later that it became clear to the Innocence Project that he’s likely been telling the truth. The one eyewitness, Lester Floyd Jones, who is now dead, told detectives at the time that the shooter was wearing a three-quarter length jacket.

Finch was the only person the detective had wearing a coat during three different line-ups where Jones identified him. Finch did have his own alibi — he was at a card game at the time of the crime — but it didn’t help.

“Witness after witness, I think there are four or five witnesses who took the stand and described the card game and Ray’s involvement at the time of the crime. So, you know that shows you the power of witness identification. The jury chose to believe the eyewitness, not the witnesses who provided the alibi,” Coleman said. 

During the trial, a forensic pathologist testified Holloman died from two shotgun wounds. A shotgun shell was found in Finch’s car. But, years later, North Carolina’s then Chief Medical Examiner Dr. John Butts said it was a pistol that killed Holloman.

New evidence continued to pile up. That included questionable practices by Deputy Tom Owen, who investigated the case at the time. But, the Innocence Project continued to hit walls.

“We went to every state official who was in the position to help us with the investigation, and not a single one of them other than Dr. Butts showed show any interest in the possibility that this was a wrongful conviction,” Coleman said.

On Jan. 25, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said, in part, “the totality of evidence would prevent any reasonable juror from finding him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, such that his incarceration is a miscarriage of justice.”

The case now goes back to the federal district court for what could be the final hearing that will decide whether Finch will go free. It is scheduled for May 23.

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