N. Carolina to pay $7.5M to estate over wrongful conviction
WILSON, N.C. (AP) — The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and its insurers will pay $7.5 million to the estate of a North Carolina man who was wrongfully convicted of a 1976 murder.
Charles Ray Finch died in January at 83. He was freed from a North Carolina prison three years ago after a federal judge overturned his murder conviction for which he spent 43 years in prison. The parties reached a settlement agreement that was finalized Tuesday, The Wilson Times reported.
In December 2019, Finch filed a federal lawsuit against Wilson County, its current sheriff, two former deputies and two NCSBI employees, The News & Observer reported at the time.
The lawsuit accused the respective agencies of corruption, specifically that the former deputies framed Finch for murder, an SBI agent covered for the sheriff’s office and an SBI general counsel later hid evidence that would have cleared Finch.
The original civil complaint contended Finch’s wrongful imprisonment was the result of a pattern of “rampant” corruption in the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office at the time of his arrest and conviction. The lawsuit claimed the sheriff’s office not only framed Finch for the murder, but that several other officials had a hand in covering up evidence that could have freed him decades prior to his release.
The SBI will now pay Finch’s estate $1.5 million, while the state’s insurance carriers will pay the remaining $6 million.
“There are 7.5 million reasons why we think they’ve admitted they did wrong to Ray Finch,” said attorney David Rudolf, who represented Finch. “I think a lot of it had to do with the pattern and practice we were able to establish with the SBI.”
In 1976, Finch was convicted of fatally shooting a gas station owner in a botched robbery. Three years later, then-Sheriff W. Robin Pridgen was convicted of federal racketeering charges, having looked the other way in a brothel scheme in exchange for bribes.
The lawsuit filed by Finch cited the federal investigation that found Pridgen’s office would identify businesses with large amounts of cash on hand and then organize robberies, with the cash split between the parties. And that’s what happened at the gas station when the robbery went wrong, the lawsuit alleges. Finch was blamed because of bad blood between him and one of the deputies, it says.
Shortly after the then-sheriff was convicted, Finch tried to have his sentence vacated, but he was thwarted by the state agency’s general counsel, who refused to release agency files for years, the lawsuit alleged. Finch was freed in 2019 after a 15-year investigation by Duke University’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic.
In January 2019, the U.S. 4th Circuit of Appeals ruled in Finch’s favor, declaring him actually innocent of the crime. In a unanimous decision, the three-judge panel said three highly suggestive police lineups violated Finch’s constitutional rights and that no reasonable juror would have convicted Finch based on the totality of both old and new evidence.
On May 23, 2019, a federal judge overturned Finch’s 1976 conviction, and he was subsequently freed. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper granted him a pardon of innocence in June 2021.
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