DURHAM, N.C. – The case of North Carolinian Charles Ray Finch, 81, released last month after more than 40 years in prison for a 1976 murder he did not commit, spotlights some of the problems with death-penalty convictions.
Finch was convicted and sentenced under what was then a state law that made the death penalty mandatory for certain crimes. On the day he was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court declared mandatory death sentences unconstitutional, and Finch was given life in prison. James Coleman, a Duke University law professor and Finch’s attorney, said the timing may have saved Finch’s life.
“If the court had not declared the death penalty unconstitutional,” Coleman said, “I think there is a very good chance that Ray would have been executed years ago, and that we would have not been able to develop the evidence to show that he was innocent.”
Because there was no biological or DNA evidence to prove Finch’s innocence, Coleman said, he and a team of attorneys at Duke’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic had to re-investigate the case from the ground up. It took more than 15 years to prove that Finch did not commit the crime. The principal evidence against Finch was an eyewitness identification, a person at the crime scene who identified Finch by the type of clothing he was wearing in a lineup. Before DNA evidence, Coleman said, these types of eyewitness-based convictions were routine.
“What we know is, the kinds of errors that were made in Ray Finch’s case were made in other cases during that period,” he said. “Nobody could credibly believe that there weren’t mistakes made in other cases that resulted in an innocent person being sentenced to death.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which overturned Finch’s conviction, said the evidence, both old and new, would fail to convince any reasonable juror of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
There are now 142 people on death row in North Carolina.