North Carolina

He’s spent 43 years in prison. Now judges call his murder conviction a ‘miscarriage of justice.’

Charles Ray Finch talks about his years in prison during a 2015 interview with The Wilson Daily Times.
Charles Ray Finch talks about his years in prison during a 2015 interview with The Wilson Daily Times. Wilson Daily Times

In 1976, a Wilson County jury convicted Charles Ray Finch of shooting a gas station owner in a robbery gone wrong, connecting him to an eyewitness description of a shotgun-wielding assailant wearing a long coat and hat.

But Finch, now 80, may soon walk free after four decades.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has granted Finch a new hearing on his case, citing problems from the 1970s so strong that jurors today would doubt his guilt. In its ruling, the three-judge panel noted trouble with the murder weapon, eyewitness testimony, an “unduly suggestive” police lineup and pressure to implicate Finch.

“The totality of the evidence would prevent any reasonable juror from finding him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” the court wrote, “such that his incarceration is a miscarriage of justice.”

The court’s 19-page opinion, filed Jan. 25, comes after nearly two decades of work from Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which first interviewed Finch in 2001 and retraced much of the evidence.

James Coleman, Duke law professor and the clinic’s co-director, said he will ask N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein to essentially dismiss the case. Given the federal court’s detailed ruling, Coleman said, “I don’t think there’s any way for the state to prevail.”

The federal court noted that prosecutors offered one eyewitness, Lester Floyd Jones, as the “bedrock” of their case. Jones worked with Richard Linwood Holloman at a combination gas and grocery in rural Black Creek, where the population is now 769. In its ruling, the court noted testimony that Jones “had cognitive issues, struggled with alcoholism and had issues with short-term memory recall.”

In February 1976, Jones later testified, he and Holloman were closing up the store when three black men came toward the station from the highway, one of them staying back out of the light. The man Jones later identified as Finch wore a three-quarter length coat and a woman’s stocking on his head for a hat.

A second man in a checkered shirt and red toboggan asked to buy some Alka-Seltzer, Jones testified, and when Holloman went to get it, Finch said, “And your money, too.” Jones testified that Finch then pulled a sawed-off shotgun from under his coat and shot at Holloman, who had been holding a revolver and returned fire. The clerk added that he dove under a counter after the first shot and identified the gun by its sound.

A second witness, Noble Harris, told police he 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. In 2003, the court’s ruling said, Harris said he later had doubts about the brief meeting and told Chief Deputy Tony Owens about his 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. Finch agreed to a search, and officers found a shotgun shell in the ash tray of the rear door. Later, Finch’s son would testify that he had found the shell while cleaning the Cadillac, a used model bought four months before, and put it in the glove compartment.

After Finch’s arrest, the ruling said, officers placed him in a series of three lineups in the Wilson County jail, using seven black men in casual clothes. Jones picked Finch all three times.

But while Deputy Owens said he placed Finch’s hat and coat on another man, the record shows differently, the judges’ opinion said. In one of the lineups, Finch was the only man wearing a hat.

“We had a picture of the lineup,” Coleman said, “and Ray Finch wore a coat in every one of them.”

Coleman said the Wrongful Convictions Clinic viewed the autopsy during its investigation and suspected the fatal wounds did not come from a shotgun. The medical examiner found the doctor who performed the original autopsy, who then declared it inaccurate and agreed Holloman had been killed with a handgun rather than shotgun, Coleman said.

The court also noted that the shell found in Finch’s Cadillac did not match those recovered at the crime scene.

“The new evidence showing that Holloman’s wounds were not in fact caused by a shotgun significantly undermines this crucial factual determination that Finch was the shooter,” the court wrote.

Three witnesses appeared for Finch during his 1976 trial, all of whom said 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, court records said. In their ruling, the judges wrote that these alibi witnesses “would seem more credible.”

Laura Brewer, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, said Stein has heard from Finch’s attorneys and is reviewing the case.

Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.