Sunday, January 27, 2019
4th Circuit Finds 80 Year-Old Charles Ray Finch Has Proven His "Actual Innocence" After 42 Years in Prison...But That Doesn't Guarantee His Release
On February 13, 1976, Richard "Shadow" Holloman was fatally shot in a failed robbery attempt inside his Black Creek country store in eastern North Carolina. Later that year, Charles Ray Finch was convicted of his murder. Finch has always maintained his innocence, and, on Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed with him, finding that Finch has proven his "actual innocence." This might lead you to believe that the 80 year-old Finch was released or will soon be released; instead, it could be years before Finch is released...if he is ever released at all. So, what's going on?
Before his appeal in federal court, Finch appealed his murder conviction in state court in North Carolina. The most recent state appeal I could find was in 2015, when Finch claimed
(1) the State failed to disclose a medical report dated 17 February 1978, (2) the State failed to disclose that its witness Lester Floyd Jones identified a different suspect in a photographic lineup, (3) the State failed to disclose that a sawed-off shotgun was seized from another suspect at the Wilson County Jail, (4) the cumulative effect of the alleged Brady violations entitled him to relief, (5) the State knowingly elicited false testimony, (6) his rights were violated by the out-of-court and in-court identifications, and (7) he received ineffective assistance of counsel. State v. Finch, State's Response to Petition for Writ of Certiorari, 2015 WL 4775709 (N.C. 2015).
After these state appeals were unsuccessful, Finch filed a federal petition for writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court of the Eastern District of North Carolina. That court, however, granted the State's motion to dismiss, finding that Finch's petition was time barred. But there is a way for a defendant to revive time barred claims: If he can prove his "actual innocence" for the crime charged, this provides a gateway for a court to hear his time barred claims. This is the argument that Finch pursued with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
That court noted that "[a]s an initial matter, this is a case where there is no physical evidence implicating Finch." Instead, "[t]he State proffered one eyewitness, Lester Floyd Jones, as the bedrock of its case." According to the court, this was problematic for at least two reasons:
-"The theory at trial was that Jones witnessed Finch murder Holloman with a sawed-off shotgun....However, new evidence demonstrates that it was a pistol and not a shotgun that killed Holloman. Furthermore, there is new expert testimony finding that the shells recovered from the crime scene cannot be matched with the shotgun shell found in Finch’s blue Cadillac."
-Jones said that one of the perpetrator of the crime wore "a light-colored stocking as a hat, dark pants and a dark three-quarter-length coat....
First, as Dr. [Brian] Cutler [an expert on eyewitness identification from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology] explained, the fact that Finch was the only suspect wearing a three-quarter-length coat in all of the line-ups rendered the line-ups procedurally improper and may have led Jones to 13 base his identification on a cue, the coat, instead of his original memory of the perpetrator’s face or other physical characteristics. Second, Dr. Cutler explained that when a suspect wears a hat, as Finch did in one of the line-ups, it can make it difficult to remember a person’s physical characteristics, and it also weakens the witness’s memory.
In addition to Jones, there was one other key State's witness: Noble Harris, who allegedly told police that he saw Finch outside the country store on the night of the murder. In 2003, however,
Noble Harris provided an updated affidavit, in which he expressed doubts that he saw Finch outside of the store the night of Holloman’s murder and that it was only a brief encounter. He stated that he relayed his uncertainty to Deputy Owens when he returned to the store after Holloman’s murder that night. Harris recounted in the affidavit that Deputy Owens and the prosecutor pressured him into sticking to his original story implicating Finch. He asserted that the prosecutor and Deputy Owens took him into a little room in the courthouse and asked him repeatedly if he saw Finch that night. According to Harris, the prosecutor and Deputy Owens also told him that Jones was going to testify that Harris was at the store when the murder happened. Harris replied that Jones was “going to testify to a lie.”
The Fourth Circuit classified this as "record evidence that Deputy Owens worked with the prosecutor in attempting to pressure Harris into testifying at trial that he was at the store at the time of the murder."
Based on all of the above, the Fourth Circuit found that Finch had proven his "actual innocence" because NO reasonable juror would have convicted him based on this new evidence.
That's great news for Finch...but all it means is that his previously time barred claims are now revived and the case is remanded back down to the United States District Court of the Eastern District of North Carolina. That court could now find that Finch has failed to prove his other claims (like ineffective assistance of counsel), keeping Finch's conviction in place and keeping him behind bars despite the finding of "actual innocence." And even if the district court does find that Finch has proven one of his other claims, the State could then appeal to the Fourth Circuit, seek en banc review by the Fourth Circuit, and then seek to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. In other words, even if Finch has a winning claim, it could still be three or more years before the 80 year-old is released.
But Finch might not have to wait. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper could bypass the court system and pardon Charles Ray Finch. It's hard to imagine a clearer case for clemency. This is an 80 year-old man who has been in prison for 42 years based on bad evidence and possibly police misconduct. Let's hope that Governor Cooper makes the right call.