Charles Ray Finch was convicted of murder in 1976 and sentenced to life in prison.
But 42 years later, Duke's Wrongful Convictions Clinic is fighting for Finch's freedom.
Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit granted Charles Ray Finch a full federal court hearing after James Coleman Jr., John S. Bradway professor of the practice of law and co-director of the clinic, presented oral arguments.
Finch was convicted of shooting gas station owner Richard Linwood Holloman in 1976 and was initially sentenced to death, which was soon commuted to life in prison. The Wrongful Convictions Clinic began fighting for his release in 2001, Coleman told The Chronicle.
He explained that the clinic had several reasons to believe Finch was innocent. Five alibi witnesses testified that Finch was playing poker at Tom Smith’s Shoeshine Parlor at the time of the shooting. However, their testimonies were rejected in favor of the account of one eyewitness, Lester Floyd Jones, a man who struggled with short-term memory loss and alcoholism.
Eillen Ulate, a Duke Law School student who worked on the case, gave an example of potential bias.
She said that the detective asked Jones and Noble Harris, a customer who visited the gas station at the time of the shooting, whether they saw Finch, even though neither witnesses voluntarily brought up Finch.
Coleman also claimed that officials pressured Harris into changing his testimony about where he saw Finch.
In the police lineup, Finch was the only individual wearing a long coat and a hat, articles of clothing that Jones used to describe the shooter in his initial testimony. In its 2019 ruling, the three-judge panel wrote that the lineup was “unduly suggestive.”
"Because the present record meets the exacting standard for the actual innocence gateway to consideration of a constitutional claim, we reverse the district court’s decision and remand the petition for adjudication on the merits," the decision stated.
In the November oral arguments, Chief Judge Roger Gregory discussed that the eyewitness identification was further complicated by the scientific research behind cross-racial identification, which shows that people are less accurate in identifying those of another race. Jones and Harris are white, and Finch is African American.
“The issue of accuracy in eyewitness identification is so salient because mistaken identification is the most common factor by far in wrongful conviction,” said Sarah Milkovich, another Duke Law School student who worked on the case.
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Although Jones said that he saw Finch killing Holloman with a shotgun, an autopsy by John Butts, North Carolina’s chief medical examiner, suggested that there were only handgun wounds, Coleman said.
Since 2002, the clinic has contacted major state elected officials, requesting a review of Finch’s case. But none of them were interested, Coleman noted.
“State officials will resist giving into the facts in the case and instead will defend the conviction on procedural grounds, even if the person seems to be innocent,” he said.
In 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina denied Finch’s habeas petition, citing the one-year statute of limitations, according to a press release about the case.
Coleman said that the Fourth Circuit’s ruling is so strong that Finch may be released without returning to court.
“We think that there are no facts, none, that the attorney general can point to that would support a conviction of Mr. Finch,” Coleman said. “So we’re hoping that the attorney general is going to release him. And we’re hoping to get a decision sometime this week.”
In her last semester of law school, Milkovich said that regardless of the attorney general’s decision, she is committed to fighting for Finch.
“I fully intend to be available to help after graduation and into my career,” Milkovich said. “If Professor Coleman called me right now and asked me to edit footnote citations, I would say absolutely yes. I am here for the long haul.”