Gov. Roy Cooper has pardoned Charles Ray Finch, declaring him innocent of the 1970s murder for which he spent more than four decades in prison.
Freed from prison in 2019, Finch is now eligible to file a legal claim and seek compensation for his wrongful conviction.
Now 83, Finch might have been executed if the NC Supreme Court hadn’t commuted his original death sentence in 1977.
“I have carefully reviewed Charles Ray Finch’s case and am granting him a Pardon of Innocence,” Cooper said in a Wednesday press release. “Mr. Finch and others who have been wrongly convicted deserve to have that injustice fully and publicly acknowledged.”
‘Suggestive’ police lineup
Two years ago, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle vacated Finch’s sentence, backing a federal appeals court that said the police lineup that identified him was “impermissably suggestive.”
In 1976, a Wilson County jury convicted him of shooting a gas station owner in a robbery in rural Black Creek, connecting Finch to an eyewitness description of a shotgun-wielding assailant wearing a long coat and hat.
His freedom followed nearly 20 years of work by Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which retraced much of the evidence. Critically, the Duke team found that Finch was the only suspect shown in a lineup wearing a hat, making him seem the obvious choice.
The sole eyewitness in the case, Lester Floyd Jones, “had cognitive issues, struggled with alcoholism and had issues with short-term memory recall,” the appeals court ruled.
Jones testified in 1976 that he and victim Richard Linwood Holloman were closing up the store when three black men came toward the station from the highway, along with a fourth who hung back in darkness.
One of the men wearing a checkered shirt and red toboggan asked to buy some Alka-Seltzer, Jones testified, and when Holloman went to get it, the man in the hat and coat he identified as Finch said, “And your money, too.”
Jones also testified that Finch shot Holloman with a sawed-off shotgun while the victim returned fire with a revolver. Jones dove under a counter after the first shot and identified the gun by its sound.
A witness’s misgivings
A second witness, Noble Harris, told police he had bought a beer and a quart of wine at the gas station on the night of Holloman’s murder and saw Finch there getting out of a blue Cadillac. But he later told law enforcement about misgivings.
“Harris recounted in his affidavit that Deputy Owens and the prosecutor pressured him into sticking to his original story,” the ruling said.
Later on the night of the shooting, court documents said, officers in Wilson caught Finch in his blue Cadillac, where officers found a shotgun shell in the ash tray of the rear door. Later, Finch’s son would testified that he had found the shell while cleaning the car and put it in the glove compartment.
After they arrested Finch, officers placed him in three lineups at the Wilson County jail, using seven black men in casual clothes. Jones picked Finch all three times.
But while the deputy said he placed Finch’s hat and coat on another man, the record showed Finch wore a three-quarter length coat in all three of the lineups, and in one of them, he was the only man wearing a hat.
Three witnesses all said at Finch’s 1976 trial that he could not have killed the gas station owner because he was playing poker at Tom Smith’s Shoeshine Stand at the time of the shooting.