Charles Ray Finch, now 81 years old, became the 166th person in the United States since 1973 to be exonerated after having been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death when the district attorney in Wilson County, North Carolina, dismissed all charges against him this month.
In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that Mr. Finch is “actually innocent” of the robbery-murder of a grocery store clerk for which he was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in 1976.
The court found that the forensic testimony and eyewitness identification used to wrongfully convict Mr. Finch were unreliable. Police put Mr. Finch in a “suggestive lineup” where he was the only suspect dressed in the clothing the witness said the perpetrator was wearing. These lineups are inherently unreliable, often leading to misidentifications, and have been declared unconstitutional. Other witnesses also indicated they had been pressured to testify against Mr. Finch.
The eyewitness, who “had cognitive issues, struggled with alcoholism and had issues with short-term memory recall,” told police the killer used a sawed-off shotgun and never said the shooter had any facial hair. In his testimony at trial, the witness changed his description of the shooter to match Mr. Finch, who had a long beard and distinctive sideburns.
Mr. Finch’s lawyers from the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic also presented new evidence showing that the victim was killed with a pistol, not a shotgun. And new ballistics evidence contradicted the prosecution’s claims that shells found at the crime scene matched a shotgun shell found in Mr. Finch’s car.
“This new evidence,” the federal appeals court concluded, “not only undercuts the state’s physical evidence, but it also discredits the reliability of Jones.” On May 23, a federal district court judge ordered Mr. Finch’s release, and the state dropped all charges against him on June 14.
Mr. Finch’s attorney, Jim Coleman, said he asked every major state official to review the case for more than 15 years. “The worst thing that we encounter in the work that we do are indifferent officials—police officers, sheriffs, prosecutors and judges—who think that justice has been done when there is a conviction, and nothing that happens after a conviction matters,” he said.
Mr. Finch is the second person this year to be exonerated more than 40 years after having been sentenced to death. In March, Clifford Williams, Jr. was exonerated 42 years after he was sentenced to death in Florida. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Mr. Finch’s case is the tenth one this decade in which an exoneration has taken 30 years or more, and all of those exonerees are Black, including Anthony Ray Hinton, who was exonerated after 30 years on Alabama’s death row.
Mr. Finch is the ninth person exonerated from death row in North Carolina, DPIC reports. Seven of his fellow exonerees are Black; an eighth is Latino. All involved witness perjury or false accusation, and eight also involved official misconduct. Official misconduct and perjury/false accusation are the leading factors contributing to wrongful homicide convictions.
The June 20 execution of Marion Wilson Jr. in Georgia was the nation’s 1500th execution since 1972; in the same period, 166 innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death. This is a shocking rate of error: for every nine people executed in this country, one innocent person has been exonerated.