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Charles Finch

Longest Incarcerations
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It was 9 p.m. on February 13, 1976, and Richard Holloman had already turned off the interior lights and locked his convenience store in a rural area outside Wilson, N.C., when three men came up out of the darkness. Two of the men went inside, and one of them asked for an Alka-Seltzer. When Holloman asked the man if he needed some water to wash down the medicine, the man said, “Yes, sir – and your money, too.”

Holloman responded quickly, “Money, hell!” The man again demanded Holloman’s money, and Holloman wheeled around, pistol in his hand, and got off a shot. The second man fired his gun, hitting Holloman in the neck and shoulder and killing him. The men then left.

The only eyewitness to the shooting was Lester Floyd Jones, who helped Holloman at the store. Deputies with the Wilson County Sheriff’s Department, led by Chief Deputy Tony Owens, quickly arrived and took a statement from Jones. It was not very detailed. Jones wrote:

3 Black Males came up Walking and asked if They could get an alkaselsa and We Unlocked and Went in and The 1 Male With a Stocking over His Head said This is a Robery and drew a Sawed off Shoot Gun and Blasted at Mr. Hollowmon one Had a Black Cap on the other Had a Tobogen on They were Walking.

Along with those brief descriptions of the men, with their black cap and wool hat, Jones also said the car was a black Pontiac with a light out in the back.

Separately, a man named Noble Harris said he had seen a man named Charles Ray Finch at the store about three hours earlier. That would not have been unusual, as the 38-year-old Finch lived nearby and was a frequent customer. Owens would later say he had already been thinking about Finch as a suspect when he drove to the crime scene. Finch had been arrested for a grocery-store robbery a few months earlier, but the charges had been dropped when the victim said Finch wasn’t involved.

An APB was put out for Finch’s blue Cadillac. Just before midnight, officers with the Wilson Police Department arrested Finch and James Lee Lewis, a passenger in the Cadillac. Finch, who was wearing a hat and a three-quarters-length coat, consented to a search of his car, and police recovered a shotgun shell from the ashtray in the left rear door. Early on February 14, Jones was brought to the sheriff’s office to view a lineup with Lewis and Finch. Owens arranged three separate lineups, using fillers from the county jail. Each time, Jones picked Finch but not Lewis as the person he had seen shoot Holloman. Finch was then charged with capital murder.

Finch’s trial began in Wilson County Superior Court on June 28, 1976. The day before, there had been a hearing to suppress Jones’s testimony based on his identification at the sheriff’s office. Finch’s attorney, Vernon Daughtridge, argued for suppression because Finch had been denied counsel at this critical part of the investigation, but the hearing also delved into Jones’s description of the shooter. Now, it was no longer bare-bones. Instead, he described Holloman’s killer as being between five foot nine and six feet tall, 150 to 160 pounds, with a dark complexion, and wearing a light shirt, dark coat and dark pants. This was a much closer description of Finch. Jones said he had orally given the description to Owens, although Owens did not confirm or deny he had received that information.

During the trial, Jones went a step further. Although there were no statements that said that the man he saw shoot Holloman had facial hair, now Jones said that Finch looked like he did on the night of the lineup, except that he had shaved. Finch’s attorneys would argue post-conviction that Jones’s memory had been influenced by looking at photos prior to trial and that what he testified he saw and what he actually saw were vastly different.

Finch did not testify, but he had several alibi witnesses who said he was playing poker at Tom Smith’s Shoeshine Parlor in downtown Wilson. Three of the men at the game said Finch had left for a while, but they also were clear that he was playing cards at the time of the robbery.

Finch’s defense also argued that the police had the wrong man. In an interview with sheriff’s deputies on February 16, 1976, Finch had said that he had picked up Lewis on the night of the shooting and that Lewis had confessed to him that “he had done the job.” His attorneys would note that Lewis fit Jones’s description of the second man – light complexion, with a pencil mustache.

Jones testified that Finch used a shotgun to kill Holloman. The state’s physical and forensic evidence was designed to reinforce that testimony. First was the autopsy performed by Dr. Henry Haberyan on February 14, 1976, which appeared to say that Holloman had died from two shotgun wounds. It was not introduced by the state, but Daughtridge cross-examined Haberyan about the report. Separately, the deputy sheriff who found the shotgun shell in Finch’s car cut the shell open as he testified so that the jurors could examine the pellets. Assistant District Attorney Frank Brown would note that it was “just like or very similar to the one that was removed from the body of Mr. Holloman.”

The cause of death and the type of weapon were central to the jury instructions given by Judge Walter Crissman. He said in part, “the State must prove or must have proven beyond a reasonable doubt first, that in this case the defendant was in the store on this occasion and had a sawed off shotgun and that he shot that gun while attempting to commit the crime of robbery with a firearm, and second, that his act of shooting that gun proximately caused the death of Mr. Richard Holloman.”

After deliberating for less than two hours, the jury convicted Finch of capital murder on July 1, 1976. The next day, Crissman sentenced Finch to death, as required by North Carolina law at the time. The sentencing happened on the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down North Carolina’s death-penalty statute as cruel and unusual punishment because it did not allow juries to consider the defendant’s character and overall record. Finch’s sentence was therefore commuted to life in prison. (The death penalty has since been reinstated in North Carolina, with a post-conviction sentencing hearing to allow jurors to consider that evidence.)

Finch, working with attorneys or acting pro se, sought to overturn his conviction over the next 43 years. Separately, in 1979, he had written to the new sheriff in Wilson County, alleging that his conviction was part of a conspiracy to cover up corruption in the county. That letter was turned over to the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation. Agents interviewed Finch and others but closed their investigation after three months.

In 2001, attorneys at the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke University Law School began representing Finch. They were able to use a state law enacted in 1996 that required prosecutors and police to turn over all investigative records. One of the records they received was the 1979 SBI report.

In 2013, Finch’s attorneys filed a wide-ranging motion for appropriate relief in Wilson County Superior Court to overturn his conviction. The motion asserted that there were numerous deficiencies with the evidence used to convict Finch, that the state had failed to turn over vital exculpatory evidence, and that Daughtridge had been deficient in his representation.

First, the motion attacked Jones’s identification of Finch, noting that the crime scene would have been backlit from the lights at the gas pumps, making it difficult for him to see the faces of the robbers. In addition, according to Jones’s testimony, he had his back to the men before the shooting started, and then he quickly scrambled for safety. That suggested he didn’t get a good look at the assailants.

The lineup also came under attack. During the trial, Owens had testified that he had made Finch and the other men in the lineup switch clothing. But photos of the lineup presented at an evidentiary hearing showed that Finch was wearing the three-quarters-length coat in each lineup. When confronted with that evidence, Owens conceded that the arrangement was unfair.

Lewis had also been charged with murder in Holloman’s death, although the charges would be dropped for insufficient evidence in 1978. While Jones didn’t pick Lewis out of the live lineup, the SBI report said that Jones had picked him out of a photo lineup conducted on February 17, 1976. That wasn’t disclosed to Finch’s attorney. When Daughtridge had asked Owens during a cross-examination whether Jones had identified Lewis as being one of the people at the store, Owens had said “no,” and Brown didn’t correct him. Judge Wayland Sermons, Jr., who denied Finch’s motion for appropriate relief, said there was no evidence that prosecutors knew about the Lewis identification and that the discovery violation was “harmless.”

Prior to trial, the SBI had examined the shotgun shell found in Finch’s car. The agency told the state that they could not find sufficient similarities between the pellets in that type of shell with the bullet fragments taken from Holloman. That evidence was also not disclosed, although Sermons said that the SBI agent had never actually compared the contents of the actual shell seized from Finch’s car with the bullet fragments. When the jurors did their own comparison, Sermons said, they were in “as good a position to consider the similarity or the differences in the pellets as anyone.”

Haberyan’s autopsy had said in three places that Holloman had died from shotgun wounds. He had danced around this fact in his testimony, never actually stating the type of weapon used, but the use of a shotgun was brought up in the prosecution’s closing arguments and the judge’s jury instructions. But Haberyan’s autopsy had a critical error. He had transposed a key word, writing “shotgun” instead of “gunshot” in three places. A review of his autopsy by the Wilson County Medical Examiner on February 17, 1976 had stated plainly that Holloman was killed by gunshot, not a shotgun.

When confronted with this error in early 2002, Haberyan acknowledged the mistake. He also said that his use of the word “slug” in his autopsy would have been consistent with the phrasing he used to describe bullets rather than shotgun pellets. In an affidavit in 2003, he said simply: “The wounds suffered by Mr. Holloman were not caused by a shotgun.”

Sermons also discounted this new evidence. He said there was no proof that the state had failed to turn over the medical examiner’s report. He also noted that Haberyan had never specifically testified that Holloman had been killed by a shotgun. In addition, the state had now shifted its theory of the crime. It was possible, prosecutors argued, that Holloman was killed by a pistol, but Finch was still guilty because he was there.

Finch’s attorneys also said Daughtridge was ineffective in his representation. He had not properly challenged the manner in which Finch was arrested or the construction of the lineup where he was identified by Jones. Finch had raised many of these points in a previous motion, and Sermons rejected them again. His order denying Finch relief was issued October 20, 2014.

Finch filed for a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for North Carolina’s Eastern District on November 19, 2015. He was 77 years old. The petition centered on the way in which Finch was arrested and then identified in the lineup and at trial, and on the evidence that had been kept from him at trial.

Finch’s attorneys said there had not been sufficient probable cause for the arrest itself. Jones’s initial description of the robbers, they argued, could have fit thousands of African-American men in eastern North Carolina. Harris had recanted in 2003, stating that he had never been certain that he had seen Finch at the convenience store in the hours before the shooting. Moreover, he said, it was Owens who had mentioned Finch first and then proceeded to repeatedly question Harris about him. At Finch’s 2013 hearing for his motion for appropriate relief, Owens had claimed – for the first time – that a confidential informant had told him that Finch and two other men were planning a robbery.

Jones’s identifications were also more closely scrutinized. As time passed, his descriptions kept getting more detailed and crisper, despite a history of alcoholism and cognitive issues. An expert retained by Finch said that the consistent use of the coat during the lineups may have played an undue role in Jones’s identification.

Finch’s attorneys also continued to assert that the state’s failure to turn over the SBI ballistics comparison, the medical examiner’s report, and Jones’s pre-trial identification of Lewis were violations of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland requiring prosecutors to turn over exculpatory materials to defense lawyers prior to trial. In particular, the medical examiner’s report, when combined with Haberyan’s acknowledgement of his error, cast significant doubt on Jones’s testimony. He had said a shotgun killed Holloman, but the evidence said the weapon had been a pistol. If Jones was wrong about that, Finch’s attorneys asked, what else had he been mistaken about in his testimony?

The state argued that Finch’s petition was time-barred, and that he didn’t meet the standards of showing actual innocence to get past the lack of timeliness. Judge James C. Dever III agreed, granting summary judgment for the state on March 17, 2017. Finch appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

On January 25, 2019, the appellate court reversed Dever’s ruling and remanded the case back to U.S. District Court for a hearing on Finch’s petition. “Finch 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,” the court wrote.

The court said that there was no physical evidence implicating Finch, that Jones was burdened with credibility issues, and that Owens’s ability to corroborate what Jones had told him had been undermined.

On May 23, 2019, Judge Terence Boyle granted Finch’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus, vacated his conviction, and ordered him released from prison. After nearly 43 years in prison, Finch was released from Greene Correctional Institution that afternoon. He was 81 and in a wheelchair. He said, “I’m just glad to be free. I feel good.”

One of Finch’s daughters, Katherine Jones-Bailey, who was two when Finch was arrested, said her family had prayed for this day to happen. “This has been a long time coming. It’s been worth the wait. It’s been worth the fight.” She also sympathized with Holloman’s family. “They still didn’t get justice,” she told The Wilson Times. “We all end up suffering at my dad’s expense.”

Under the terms of Boyle’s order, Wilson County District Attorney Robert Evans had a month to decide whether to retry Finch or dismiss the charges. On June 14, Evans filed a notice of dismissal in Wilson County Superior Court that said that retrial was impossible because witnesses were either "deceased, retired and/or relocated." In December 2019, Finch filed a federal lawsuit against Wilson County and two former employees of the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 6/24/2019
Last Updated: 12/6/2019
State:North Carolina
County:Wilson
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1976
Convicted:1976
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Death
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:38
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No