43 years after death sentence, Charles Ray Finch proves his innocence

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Charles Ray Finch in 2015.
Charles Ray Finch in 2015. Photo by Brad Coville, Wilson Daily Times.

A man who was sentenced to death in North Carolina may soon be exonerated after spending more than 40 years in prison.

Last week, a federal court said Charles Ray Finch — who was sentenced to death in 1976, but later resentenced to life because of changes to state death penalty laws — is entitled to a new hearing to determine whether he is innocent. The court also discounted nearly every piece of evidence used to convict Finch of murder.

The verdict was the result of work by Duke University’s Innocence Clinic, which has been investigating Finch’s case since 2001. Finch has claimed innocence since the day of his arrest, but other courts had refused to consider the evidence he offered. He is now 80 years old. Finch’s lawyers are  asking Attorney General Josh Stein to agree to his release, since the court ruling said no rational jury would convict him based on the evidence available today.

According to the opinion, one witness who testified against Finch has since recanted, saying that police and prosecutors pressured him into identifying Finch as the killer. All of the physical evidence that police said connected Finch to the crime has been discredited.

Most importantly, the testimony of the state’s main eyewitness was proven unreliable. Lester Jones was working in a convenience store alongside Richard Holloman when three men robbed the store and shot Holloman to death. Jones was unable to describe the shooter’s face, but told police the man was wearing a three-quarter length jacket. That night, during three separate lineups, Finch was the only suspect wearing a three-quarter length jacket. Such highly suggestive lineups have been proven to lead to false identifications and are now illegal.

Other people who were convicted based on questionable eyewitness identifications remain on death row in North Carolina. For example, Elrico Fowler was sentenced to death in 1997 based largely on the testimony of an eyewitness. Despite having seen only one suspect, the witness picked several other men in photographic lineups — and when he was first shown Fowler in a photo lineup, he failed to identify him. He only picked Fowler in a second photo lineup administered several days after the crime, after the same photo of Fowler had appeared in the newspaper listing him as a suspect. And the witness became certain of his identification only after investigators told him that he picked the right person.

Virtually every aspect of Fowler’s identification is now illegal, thanks to reforms meant to prevent mistaken IDs. Yet, Fowler remains on death row because of a tainted police lineup from 20 years ago. [Learn more about how most of North Carolina’s death row prisoners were tried under obsolete laws.]

As long as we have the death penalty, innocent people will be in danger of execution. How many more people must be exonerated before North Carolina ends the death penalty?