Argued: November 15, 2018
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)
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.
A. Farahany, DUKE UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW, Durham, North
Carolina, for Appellant.
H. Stein, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF
NORTH CAROLINA, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.
GREGORY, Chief Judge, KEENAN, and FLOYD, Circuit Judges.
GREGORY, CHIEF JUDGE.
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.
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
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).
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 ...