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80-Year-Old Sentenced to Death Could Be Exonerated Soon

More than 130 people on death row were tried before a 2008 package of reforms intended to prevent false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications, which have been leading causes of wrongful convictions across North Carolina. (psu.edu)
More than 130 people on death row were tried before a 2008 package of reforms intended to prevent false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications, which have been leading causes of wrongful convictions across North Carolina. (psu.edu)
January 31, 2019

WILSON, N.C. – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has agreed with The Duke Law Innocence Project's assertion that it's unlikely jurors would have convicted Charles Ray Finch of the 1976 murder of Richard "Shadow" Holloman if they had known about flaws in the police lineup and witness pressure from prosecutors.

The three-judge ruling returned the case to the North Carolina-based federal court with a unanimous opinion that Jim Coleman, attorney for Finch and head of Duke University's Wrongful Conviction Clinic, says proves that past death penalty cases deserve a second look.

"On one of our principal issues, which is that the lineup from which Mr. Finch was identified was extremely suggestive,” he states, “the Court of Appeals agrees with that and held that it likely violated the Constitution."

Advocates say Finch narrowly escaped death. The investigation led to an eyewitness who admitted to being influenced by the prosecution.

After the conviction, Finch was sentenced to execution in the gas chamber on Oct. 4, 1976, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina's mandatory death penalty law was unconstitutional.

Kristin Collins, a spokeswoman for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, says Finch's case isn't the first time mistaken identity has led to sentences of death or life in prison.

"There are people still on death row today who are there largely because one person identified them as the person they saw,” she points out. “Those were identifications that were often done in questionable ways before we had laws that tried to prevent mistaken identifications and actually wouldn't be legal according to today's standards."

Advocates say that if prosecutors look at the federal court's opinion and the evidence, litigation won't be necessary for Finch to be freed.

Coleman says since Finch has spent more than 42 years of his life in prison, he plans to approach North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein to help with the 80-year-old's immediate release.

"Our intent is to now go to the attorney general to join us in asking the federal district court to grant the writ of habeas corpus, agree that the conviction violated the Constitution, and to immediately release Mr. Finch from prison," he states.

According to the center, 92 percent of cases were tried before 2008 reforms designed to prevent mistaken eyewitness identifications.

The new laws set strict standards for eyewitness lineup procedures.

Antionette Kerr, Public News Service - NC