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Our Opinion: An innocent man, Ray Finch deserves governor's pardon

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Charles Ray Finch is finally free. But after serving 43 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, he left state custody with little more than the clothes on his back.

No mortal can return to Finch the four decades of freedom our justice system took from him. But state law allows people exonerated of felony convictions to receive financial compensation that helps them reestablish their lives. The process starts with the governor’s pardon pen.

N.C. General Statute 148-82 requires a pardon of innocence from the governor in order to “petition a claim against the state for the pecuniary loss sustained by the person through his or her erroneous conviction or imprisonment.”

With a pardon in hand, exonerees take their petition to the North Carolina Industrial Commission, which schedules a hearing. The state attorney general has the option of opposing the petition. If a claim is granted, pardoned individuals receive $50,000 for each year they spent wrongfully incarcerated up to a maximum of $750,000.

Finch was released from Greene Correctional Institution on May 23 after a federal judge vacated his murder conviction in the 1976 killing of Ray “Shadow” Holloman, a Black Creek shopkeeper who was gunned down during a failed robbery. His attorneys from the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic showed the ballistics evidence used to convict him was inaccurate and the eyewitness identification that resulted in his arrest stemmed from a suggestive police lineup.

In May 2018, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Finch had demonstrated his innocence and sent his case back to U.S. District Court, where Judge Terrence Boyle threw out the verdict and ordered his release.

The final domino fell last week when Wilson County District Attorney Robert Evans’ office dismissed all charges against Finch, ensuring there will not be another trial.

“The reason the state cannot retry Ray is there is no evidence,” Duke University law professor and Wrongful Convictions Clinic director Jim Coleman told Times reporter Olivia Neeley. “He is innocent.”

Finch has been exonerated, but the state justice system that railroaded him and locked him away for 43 years has done nothing to make amends for its systemic failures. A pardon would begin the process of making things right — or at least as right as they can be.

Duke lawyers are seeking a pardon on Finch’s behalf. We call on Gov. Roy Cooper to grant the request and do so expediently.

“In light of the 4th Circuit finding unanimously that we had shown that Ray was innocent and Judge Boyle subsequently finding that the only evidence against Ray (Lester Floyd Jones’ eyewitness identification) violated the Constitution, we are optimistic that a fair review of the petition will result in a pardon,” Coleman said. “We hope the public will find a way to show its support for a pardon.”

Finch’s future prospects depend largely on the prosecutorial system’s willingness to concede its past shortcomings with humility and provide restorative justice for this innocent man. We understand it’s common for the governor’s staff to consult with the district attorney’s office when reviewing petitions for pardons of innocence.

Evans was not the district attorney who prosecuted Finch, and he and his assistant DAs aren’t at fault for the injustice he endured. These public servants inherited Finch’s case from their predecessors. They bear responsibility, but not blame, for the district attorney’s office’s conduct.

That responsibility means it’s incumbent upon Evans to seek the fairest outcome now possible. It means giving a full and honest accounting to the governor’s office and supporting the pardon petition without reservation.

Before becoming governor in 2016, Cooper served as North Carolina’s elected state attorney general for 16 years. A politician and prosecutor with a facile legal mind, Cooper can comb through the case file and see the same fatal defects in Finch’s conviction that federal judges flagged. If he does his homework, Cooper will reach the correct conclusion.

The $750,000 in compensation Finch stands to receive may seem like a windfall, but that sum works out to just $17,442 for each year he spent in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. At 81 years old and in ailing health, Finch deserves the chance to live out his last years in comfort with the family of whose company he’s been too long deprived.

Cooper has the opportunity to help right a historic wrong. Pardon Ray Finch without delay.

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