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Fourth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Habeas and Remands for Hearing on Actual Innocence Claim

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of Charles Ray Finch’s habeas petition and remanded for a hearing on the merits of Finch’s claim of actual innocence.

In 1976, a jury in Wilson, North Carolina, convicted Finch of first-degree murder. In 1977, the Supreme Court of North Carolina commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment. Finch filed various motions for relief in the state courts, all of which were denied. On December 17, 2015, Finch filed a federal habeas petition. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina dismissed the petition as time barred. The Fourth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability.

The Court observed that ordinarily a state prisoner has one year to file a federal habeas corpus petition, beginning from the date the judgment became final on a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court or from the expiration of the date for seeking the writ. McQuiggin v. Perkins, 569 U.S. 383 (2013). However, a claim of actual innocence, if proven, serves as a gateway through which the habeas petitioner may pass when AEDPA’s statute of limitations has expired. Id. A valid actual innocence claim “requires [the] petitioner to support his allegations of constitutional error with new reliable evidence—whether it be exculpatory scientific evidence, trustworthy eyewitness accounts, or critical physical evidence—that was not presented at trial.” Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298 (1995). In evaluating the claim, courts are “not bound by the rules of admissibility that would govern at trial” but must consider “all the evidence, including that alleged to have been illegally admitted (but with regard to the unreliability of it) and evidence tenably claimed to have been wrongly excluded or to have become available only after trial.” Id. A petitioner must also “demonstrate that the totality of the evidence would prevent any reasonable juror from finding him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” Teleguz v. Pearson, 689 F.3d 322 (4th Cir. 2012).

The Court provided a summary of the State’s evidence as follows: Lester Floyd Jones testified that he worked with the murder victim, Richard Linwood Holloman, at Holloman’s store. He told Chief Deputy Tony Owens that at 9 p.m. he and Holloman were closing the store when three men approached. Jones described one man as wearing a long, three-quarter length coat and a woman’s stocking on his hair. He said the man was in the store earlier that evening. Jones said the other man was wearing a red-and-white checkered shirt and red toboggan. He did not see the third man. Jones said the man in the long coat pulled a shotgun from beneath his coat and demanded money. Holloman shot at the man, and Jones hid under a counter before he heard the shotgun blast. The door to the store slammed shut, and Holloman told Jones to call the police before he died from his injuries.

Jones later identified Finch three times in successive pretrial lineups as the man in the coat with the shotgun. Owens corroborated Jones’ testimony but added that Jones said he did not get a good look at the man in the coat. Noble Harris testified that he saw Finch at the store shortly before closing time. A shotgun shell was found in Finch’s Cadillac. And forensic pathologist Henry Haberyan testified that Holloman died from two shotgun wounds caused by “slugs.”

Defense evidence included the testimony of Bobby Taylor that Jones had cognitive impairment, struggled with alcoholism, had difficulty with short-term memory, and had stated he only thought Finch killed Holloman. Additionally, three alibi witnesses testified that Finch was with them at the time of the murder. Finch had a beard of which Jones made no mention in his description to Owens. And Finch’s son, Taylor, testified that his father had purchased the used Cadillac four months prior to the murder. Taylor testified he was cleaning the car and found the shotgun shell under the seat.

Finch’s new evidence presented in his petition—an affidavit from Harris stating he told Owens he had doubts about seeing Finch at the store, but Owens and the prosecutor told him to stick to his statement or Jones would testify that Harris was at the store during the murder.

At a postconviction hearing, Owens testified that due to a tip earlier in the evening he had Finch in mind before getting the call about the murder even though armed robbery was not consistent with Finch’s background.

Chief medical examiner John Butts stated that it was unlikely, based on Haberyan’s report, that Holloman was killed with a shotgun because Haberyan submitted a letter in 2002 clarifying that his autopsy report should have said “gunshot wounds” and not “shotgun wounds.” The term “slug” referred to bullets, not pellets from a shotgun shell. Brian Cutler, an expert on eyewitness identification, testified the pretrial lineups had significant risks of misidentification because Finch was the only one wearing a three-quarter-length coat in all three lineups, and the lineups were successive.

The Court concluded that after hearing the new evidence no reasonable juror would have credited Owen’s or Jones’ testimony. No juror would have had confidence in the identification of Finch. The recovered shotgun shell meant nothing. And Harris’ testimony was no longer credible. In sum, no reasonable juror would have found Finch guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded Finch’s petition back through the gateway of actual innocence for a hearing on the merits of his case. See: Finch v. McKoy, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 2579 (4th Cir. 2019). 

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