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Exoneration a cautionary tale for cops and prosecutors

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Justice came four decades too late, but it finally arrived under overcast skies May 23 in rural Greene County.

Charles Ray Finch, a Wilson native who was railroaded through the court system and wrongfully convicted of murder in 1976, left Greene Correctional Institution a free man. U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle ordered Finch’s release earlier that day when an assistant attorney general said the state could not succeed in an evidentiary hearing.

Finch had been accused of fatally shooting Black Creek gas station owner Richard “Shadow” Holloman during a failed robbery attempt on Feb. 13, 1976 despite having alibi witnesses. Faulty evidence led to a guilty verdict. Wilson County sheriff’s deputies had dressed Finch to match an eyewitness’ vague description of the suspect, cueing the witness to select him in a lineup. A medical examiner who initially identified a shotgun similar to Holloman’s as the murder weapon later recanted his testimony and said a handgun was used to kill the shopkeeper.

From the time of his arrest, Finch insisted he was innocent. He never wavered, refusing to accept blame for a crime he didn’t commit.

Jim Coleman, a law professor at Duke University, believed him. He took Finch’s case 15 years ago through the Duke School of Law’s Innocence Project and continued working to secure the man’s freedom through Duke’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic after it was established in 2007. Doggedly, Coleman and his colleagues pursued exoneration.

In May 2018, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear Finch’s case. His day in court came last November when a three-judge panel convened on the Cherokee Reservation in western North Carolina. In January, the judges handed down a unanimous decision overturning a lower court’s ruling to throw out Finch’s innocence claim and sending the case back for further proceedings.

“It’s incredible,” Coleman told Times reporter Olivia Neeley, who has chronicled Finch’s case since 2013. “We feel an enormous sense of vindication.”

Finch’s children wrapped him in tight hugs after attorneys ferried him from the state prison to nearby Maury Chapel Free Will Baptist Church. His mouth crinkled into a wide smile.

“I’m just glad to be free,” Finch said. “I feel good.”

The parking lot reunion was a cause for celebration, but the outcome is bittersweet. Finch is the oldest and longest-serving inmate in North Carolina to have his conviction overturned. He spent 43 long years behind bars and is now entering the twilight of his life. He’s still ailing from a stroke he suffered while in state custody. Family members shared words of acceptance and forgiveness last week, with daughter Katherine Jones-Bailey resolving to “leave the past in the past.” That past, however, includes the prime of her father’s life, stolen from him by cops and prosecutors blinded by tunnel vision and determined to make the evidence fit their theory.

When a Wilson County jury convicted him of murder, Finch received a mandatory death sentence. Following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the state’s high court commuted his sentence to life in prison in 1977. Were it not for federal intervention, North Carolina would have executed an innocent man.

The other reason this story doesn’t end with “happily ever after” is that, while Charles Ray Finch didn’t kill Richard Holloman, someone did. And that person was never held accountable.

Jones-Bailey said Finch’s conviction victimized both her family and Holloman’s.

“They still didn’t get justice,” she said. “We all end up suffering at my dad’s expense.”

This case must serve as a cautionary tale to law enforcement officers and prosecutors. Snap judgments and a convict-at-all-costs mentality can lead error-prone human investigators to make mistakes. Exculpatory evidence is too easily brushed aside when detectives listen to their gut and fail to follow where the facts lead.

Faulty ballistics evidence helped seal Finch’s fate, and that was 24 years before “CSI” first aired and began molding public perception. While DNA evidence remains the gold standard, not all forensic disciplines are considered robust science. Ballistics can be a mixed bag, partial fingerprint matches have produced false positives, hair samples have been misidentified and bite mark analysis is thoroughly unreliable.

The criminal justice system must guard vigilantly against wrongful convictions. Charles Ray Finch is back where he belongs, and no innocent man or woman should have to endure a similar fight for freedom.