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Finch v. McKoy

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

January 25, 2019

CHARLES RAY FINCH, Petitioner - Appellant,
v.
SUPERINTENDENT TIMOTHY MCKOY, Respondent - Appellee.

          Argued: November 15, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, at Raleigh. James C. Dever III, District Judge. (5:15-hc-02302-D)

         ARGUED:

          James Earl Coleman, Jr., DUKE UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW, Durham, North Carolina, for Appellant.

          Nicholaos G. Vlahos, NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Nita A. Farahany, DUKE UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW, Durham, North Carolina, for Appellant.

          Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NORTH CAROLINA, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

          Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, KEENAN, and FLOYD, Circuit Judges.

          GREGORY, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Petitioner Charles Ray Finch appeals the denial of his federal habeas petition. In 1976, a jury in Wilson, North Carolina convicted Finch of first-degree murder. Finch originally received a death sentence, but in 1977, the North Carolina Supreme Court commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. In 2015, Finch filed a habeas petition in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The district court denied Finch's petition. Because the present record meets the exacting standard for the actual innocence gateway to consideration of a constitutional claim, we reverse the district court's decision and remand the petition for adjudication on the merits.

         I.

         In the years after his 1976 conviction, Finch filed various pro se and counseled motions for relief with North Carolina state courts but received orders denying all of them. On December 17, 2015, Finch filed a federal habeas petition in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The State moved for summary judgment on August 1, 2016 on multiple grounds, including on the basis that Finch's claims were time barred. Without reaching the merits of the habeas petition, the district court granted the State's motion for summary judgment based on untimeliness and dismissed the petition as timed barred. The district court also found that Finch did not meet the actual innocence standard required to overcome his untimeliness. Finch filed a notice of appeal on April 14, 2017. On May 1, 2018, we granted a certificate of appealability. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c) on the claim of actual innocence.

         II.

         This Court reviews de novo a district court's denial of a 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition filed by a state prisoner. MacDonald v. Moose, 710 F.3d 154, 159 (4th Cir. 2013). The district court dismissed Finch's petition as untimely because, under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), a state prisoner normally has one year to file a federal petition for habeas corpus, beginning at the date that a "judgment became final by the conclusion of direct review or the expiration of the time for seeking such review." McQuiggin v. Perkins, 569 U.S. 383, 388 (2013). The record reflects that all of Finch's claims are untimely. However, Finch alleges actual innocence, which, if proven, serves as a gateway through which a habeas petitioner may pass when AEDPA's statute of limitations has expired. See McQuiggin, 569 U.S. at 386; see also Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298, 329 (1995). "This rule, or fundamental miscarriage of justice exception, is grounded in the equitable discretion of habeas courts to see that federal constitutional errors do not result in the incarceration of innocent persons." McQuiggin, 569 U.S. at 392 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         III.

         In order to properly examine Finch's claims of actual innocence, we must first turn to the evidence and testimony considered at the 1976 trial. The State proffered one eyewitness, Lester Floyd Jones, as the bedrock of its case. Jones worked for the murder victim, Richard Linwood Holloman, at a grocery store and gas station Holloman owned. Jones testified that he was with Holloman at the store on February 13, 1976, the night of the murder. Jones testified that around 9:00 p.m. he and Holloman were at the store and in the process of locking up for the night. Holloman turned off the store's interior lights, collected the cash from the register, and placed a padlock on the exterior of the front door. During this time, Jones said he heard three male voices coming from the ...


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