WILSON, N.C. — A North Carolina man who's spent four decades arguing he's innocent of killing a gas station owner will get a new shot at earning his freedom after a federal appeals court ruled evidence casts doubt on his murder conviction.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday it was unlikely that jurors would have convicted Charles Ray Finch if they had known about flaws in a police lineup and questions about key witness testimony. The three-judge panel returned the case to a federal district court for a fresh look at innocence claims that the lower court previously dismissed because of technical reasons including timeliness.
The unanimous opinion says Finch succeeded in "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."
Finch, who's now 80, was convicted in the 1976 death of Richard Holloman, who was shot during a robbery attempt inside his country store and gas station in Wilson. Finch was found guilty that year of first-degree murder and initially sentenced to death. The state Supreme Court later commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
But the federal appeals court found that authorities appear to have employed suggestive - and likely unconstitutional - tactics in the lineup used to identify Finch as a suspect, including having him wear a coat that could have cued a witness to pick him.
The judges' opinion also says the key eyewitness who identified Finch had credibility issues including memory trouble. And the opinion notes a lack of physical evidence connecting Finch to the scene, as well as alibi witnesses who said he was elsewhere at the time of the killing.
The appeals court ruling returns the case to the North Carolina-based federal court that ruled Finch's habeas corpus petition in 2017 came too late. The appeals judges said that Finch has shown evidence that he meets a narrow standard to overcome the timeliness issue.
Finch's lead lawyer, Jim Coleman of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, told The Wilson Daily Times that he hopes state Attorney General Josh Stein will join a motion to overturn the conviction and release Finch.
"The important thing the court said was as a result of the investigation, there is no credible evidence that a reasonable jury could convict Ray," Coleman told the newspaper. "That's the definition of actual innocence. We've established by the record that Ray is innocent."
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