Charles Ray Finch’s family quietly wept and embraced when U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle adjourned a hearing in Raleigh today moments after vacating Finch’s 1976 murder convicting and ordering the eighty-one-year-old’s release after four decades in prison.
The state of North Carolina did not oppose the decision, with assistant attorney general Leslie Cooley Dismukes conceding that the state would likely not succeed in an evidentiary hearing to show proof of Finch’s guilt.
With Boyle’s order, Finch becomes the longest-serving prisoner in North Carolina to be released after proving an actual innocence claim.
Finch was convicted in Wilson County slaying of gas-station owner Richard Holloman. At the time, the conviction carried a mandatory death sentence, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1977 after the state’s statute was declared unconstitutional.
The order to free Finch was set in motion by a January ruling from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that he “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.”
Specifically, the Fourth Circuit found that investigators used an “impermissibly suggestive line-up” that showed Finch wearing a distinctive three-quarter length coat in a series of photos, which the court ruled would likely cause a reasonable juror today to doubt a witness’s identification of the defendant. The Fourth Circuit also found that a Wilson County sheriff’s deputy encouraged a witness to give false testimony—undermining the credibility of the deputy’s own testimony—and that there was no ballistic evidence linking a shotgun shell found in Finch’s car to evidence recovered at the crime scene. And the court found that the state’s key witness had “a host of credibility issues,” including alcoholism and cognitive difficulties.
Finch did not attend today’s hearing, but Boyle ordered that his release from Central Prison no later than noon tomorrow. Jim Coleman, Finch’s lawyer, told the judge that the prison likely could not process the order immediately.
Boyle’s order grants District Attorney Robert Evans, the chief prosecutor for Wilson, Nash, and Edgecombe Counties, up to thirty days to decide whether to retry Finch.
Katherine Finch, who was a baby at the time her father was sent to prison, said this is the day she had been praying for.
“I always thought, looking over the case as I got old enough to understand—I know some people do horrible things to other people, and their families deserve justice, but every time I went over my dad’s case, I never saw that my dad did this,” she said. “So I know that this other man’s family wanted some justice, but it just wasn’t my dad. Justice wasn’t there, so they still didn’t get justice. We all ended up suffering. But now, today, we finally get justice for my dad.”
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