DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — Sunday marks one month since 81-year-old Charles Ray Finch was released from a state prison, after spending 43 years behind bars — wrongly convicted of a 1976 Wilson County murder.
A group of law students with the Duke Law Innocence Project helped Finch win his freedom.
According to Duke Law officials, the project is a volunteer student organization working for exoneration of inmates who were wrongfully convicted by looking into claims of actual innocence.
The project spent 17 years working on the case, the first for the group since it started in 2002.
Before graduating from Duke Law School, Eileen Ulate helped Finch win his freedom.
“Very surreal,” Ulate said. “It just doesn’t feel real until you see your client, and you see them coming out of the prison.”
Ulate spent time with Duke’s Innocence Project and the Wrongful Convictions Clinic.
“This is going to be one of the highlights of their career, whatever they do,” Duke Law Professor Jim Coleman said.
According to Coleman, the Duke Innocence Project investigates claims of innocence made by inmates in North Carolina prisons.
“The work we do actually compliments the criminal justice system,” Coleman said. “We go out there and help to identify places where the system resulted in a miscarriage of justice, and the system can then correct the error.”
Coleman told CBS 17 the group has helped exonerate seven inmates out of 20 cases, including Finch.
He said other exonerations include cases of murder, assault with intent to kill and child sexual abuse.
“One of the things that we do is to try to determine that there’s some way to unwind the conviction, and demonstrate that this person was innocent,” Coleman said. “Challenging the scientific evidence that was used, the medical evidence that was used, we attack that.”
Coleman said students also take part in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, gaining hands-on experience.
“The student works on every aspect of it — investigation, finding witnesses, questioning witnesses,” he said. “Everything you would do in a lawsuit in major litigation, that’s what the students do.”
After Finch’s freedom, for Coleman, he said his students’ success is what he enjoys most.
“It pays off to persevere,” he said.
Coleman said the wrongful convictions clinic has 10 cases in different stages at this time.