Two milestones were reached in June, starkly illustrating how broken the death penalty in the United States is.
In North Carolina, prosecutors formally dismissed all charges against Charles Ray Finch on June 14, making him the 166th person to be exonerated in the U.S. since 1973. Six days later, Georgia executed Marion Wilson, the 1500th person to be executed in the U.S. since 1976.
Or, to put it another way: for every nine condemned men or women executed, one condemned person has been found innocent and released.
Marion Wilson was executed — Georgia’s second this year, the 10th in the country — for the murder of Donovan Parks during a carjacking in Atlanta in 1996. Wilson always maintained his innocence, insisting his accomplice, Robert Butts, Jr., shot Parks in the head. Butts was executed last year. But like other states, participating in a crime that results in a murder makes the participant equally guilty and eligible for the death penalty. In his last statement, Wilson said, “I ain’t never took a life in my life.”
Charles Ray Finch was sentenced to death in 1976 (his sentence was commuted to life a year later when the U.S. Supreme Court found North Carolina’s death penalty unconstitutional), for the murder of Richard Holloman, a gas station owner, during a robbery. Now 81 years old, Finch spent years appealing his conviction before the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic filed a habeas petition on his behalf in 2015. It was denied by a U.S. district court, a decision that a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversed unanimously in January.
“Finch has overcome the exacting standard for actual innocence through sufficiently alleging and providing new evidence of a constitutional violation and through demonstrating that the totality of the evidence, both old and new, would likely fail to convince any reasonable juror of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Fourth Circuit Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote for the three-judge panel.
A federal district court then ordered Finch be released from prison on May 23 and told prosecutors they had 30 days to determine whether to retry him. On June 14, the district attorney dropped all charges. Finch, who suffered a stroke while in prison, left the Greene Correctional Institute in a wheelchair. He had been in prison for 43 years, “More than any other death-row exoneree in modern times,” the Death Penalty Information Center notes. According to DPIC, he is the ninth person exonerated from North Carolina’s death row, and is the seventh black exoneree of the nine.
Finch’s release was a victory for Wrongful Convictions Clinic Co-director James Coleman, Jr., who has represented Finch for 15 years. Outside the prison after Finch’s release, Coleman told reporters, “Ray was unwavering in maintaining his innocence and today proves that he was, and he’s been vindicated.”