Exonerated: The Case of Charles Ray Finch

Jul 23, 2019

In the winter of 1976, Richard Hollomon was gunned down while closing up his gas station just outside of Wilson, North Carolina. Lester Floyd Jones witnessed as three black men robbed the store and engaged in a shootout with his boss Hollomon. Jones testified that Hollomon was shot from two feet away with a shotgun. Hollomon died from gunshot wounds. The quest for justice lead to another black man, Charles Ray Finch, spending more than four decades in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Finch lived near the gas station and was spotted there on the day of the murder, officers reported finding a shotgun shell in his Cadillac, and he was wearing a coat. These elements were the primary evidence against Finch and were enough to sentence him to death, later commuted to life in prison. This past May, an 81-year-old Finch was released after the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that no jury would have convicted him based on both old and new evidence.

Finch’s lead attorney James E. Coleman of Duke Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic joins guest host Anita Rao to talk about the 15 years he devoted to this case and the facts that led to Finch’s freedom. Buncombe County District Attorney Todd M. Williams joins the discussion to give an inside look at the role of prosecutors, public defenders and how and why cases go wrong. Williams, a former public defender and capital defender, has worked to exonerate the wrongly convicted and shares his vision as a progressive prosecutor who believes in addressing the whole person not just the crime committed. Seth Kotch is author of “” (UNC Press/ 2019) and an expert in the social history of criminal justice at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He joins the show to discuss the complicated history of the justice system.

Interview Highlights

Coleman on interviewing the deputy on this case:

It was clear when we met him that he knew the line ups were a problem, so he started to volunteer information about the line ups. We expected he would lie, so the purpose of the interview was not to get the truth but to get him committed to a story. He told us that the one thing he made sure of was that Ray was not wearing a coat [in the line up]. We knew that if he stuck to that story that we were going to be able to expose it as a lie.   

Coleman on the deputy’s handling of the investigation: 

From the very beginning when he showed up at the crime scene, he started asking questions about Ray. Before he talked to the eyewitness, before he knew anything about what had happened, he asked people who were kind of standing around, watching if anybody had seen Ray Finch there that day.  

That's our obligation in each and every case, to do justice - Buncombe County DA Todd M. Williams

Coleman on the life many exonerees face after getting released: 

The person doesn’t have skills that would allow him to get a job. And so basically he’s sitting around without anything to do. Usually, I think they need some kind of counseling. Sometimes they abuse drugs and alcohol, kind of self-medicate. And there are no programs to deal with that for people who are wrongfully convicted.    

Williams on the relationship between client and lawyer:

In regard to any case, I think it's incumbent upon a public defender, a lawyer, defense counsel to develop a very strong relationship with the client to ensure that there’s good communication, that reliable information is being relayed from the client to the defense team. If you are a consumer of those services, you should be asking: What kind of relationship do I have with my lawyer?

Kotch on the idea of actual innocence: 

As someone outside the legal profession, the phrase “actual innocence” is so chilling because it really suggests that categories of guilt and innocence are much more complex than what we think about when we see a courtroom drama on television. 

Kotch on the history of criminal justice in the South: 

You just have to read a little bit of history, because it’s grim. The criminal justice system by and large is set up in the post-Civil War American South in order to punish African American men largely, and in order to capture their labor and to use it in building our state infrastructure … We have built these very important institutions around the core that was set up in a deeply racially biased fashion.