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Free after 43 years: How Duke's Wrongful Convictions Clinic freed an innocent man

Chronicle File Photo | Duke Law School
Chronicle File Photo | Duke Law School

After 43 years in prison for a murder that he did not commit, Charles Ray Finch was released last month thanks to Duke Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic.

At the May 23 hearing, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle ordered that Finch be released no later than noon the next day. Finch reunited with his family five hours later outside the Greene Correctional Institution where he had been held.  

Leslie Cooley Dismukes, North Carolina assistant attorney general, told Boyle that the state would not challenge Finch’s release—although Wilson County District Attorney Robert Evans has 30 days to decide whether the state would retry the case, according to WRAL.

“I know some people do horrible things to other people, and their families deserve justice,” said Finch’s daughter, Katherine Jones-Bailey, in a press release. “But every time I went over my dad’s case, I never thought that he did this. So they still didn’t get justice. We all ended up suffering.”

In 1976, Finch was convicted of shooting gas station owner Richard Linwood Holloman and sentenced to death. He was resentenced to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court declared North Carolina’s mandatory death penalty unconstitutional.

Finch has maintained his innocence since the day he was arrested, said James Coleman Jr., John S. Bradway professor of the practice of law and Finch’s lawyer.

Multiple pieces of evidence pointed to Finch’s innocence.

Three alibi witnesses testified that he was playing poker at Tom Smith’s Shoeshine Stand at the time of the shooting. The only eyewitness, Lester Floyd Jones, was a man who struggled with short-term memory loss and alcoholism. 

Photographs of the police lineup show that Finch was the only individual wearing a coat and a hat—articles of clothing Jones used to describe the shooter—suggesting an intentional bias to implicate Finch, Coleman said.

Coleman first interviewed Finch in 2001. He is the co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, where law students work with professors to review claims of innocence from those who may have been put in prison due to wrong eyewitnesses, faulty confessions and more. The clinic contacted every major state official, requesting a review of the case. 

Except for John Butts, North Carolina’s chief medical examiner, none showed interest, Coleman said. Butts wrote that the victim was killed by a handgun rather than the shotgun, despite what the eyewitness had claimed.

Coleman said that “indifferent officials” were one of the main obstacles in the pursuit of justice for Finch.

“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.”

In 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina denied Finch’s habeas petition for an appeal. The court referenced a one-year statute of limitations on the time during which a case can be revisited.

The clinic then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which granted Finch a full federal court hearing in January.

In February, Coleman said that the Fourth Circuit’s ruling—“the first time judges really looked at the evidence,” he added—was so compelling that he thought attorney general Josh Stein might release Finch without returning to court. After meeting with Stein, however, Coleman realized that the attorney general would not become involved with the case.

Coleman also acknowledged the role of the press in Finch’s release, particularly thanking reporter Olivia Neely for covering the case since she first arrived at The Wilson Times. Media attention put pressure on state officials, ensuring that “the case did not disappear,” said Coleman.

Although Coleman is pleased that justice has finally been served, he said that he is “disappointed that it took 18 years.”

“This is not an instance that proves that the system works…. The system did not work,” Coleman said.

After Finch’s release, the 81-year-old said that he wanted chicken from Parker’s Barbecue in Wilson, so members of the clinic joined him and his family for a celebratory meal. He also hopes to travel to the Bahamas.

Although Finch, who relies on a wheelchair after suffering from a stroke, leaves prison in comparably old age and poor health, Coleman said, “he will die a free man.”

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