James Coleman Jr., one of the nation's foremost wrongful convictions attorneys, spoke with Cardinal & Pine about the sometimes painful process of getting a pardon for already exonerated people in North Carolina. (Image via Duke University) James Coleman Jr.
James Coleman Jr., one of the nation's foremost wrongful convictions attorneys, spoke with Cardinal & Pine about the sometimes painful process of getting a pardon for already exonerated people in North Carolina. (Image via Duke University)

“It’s actually worse under a Democratic governor,” James Coleman Jr. of Duke’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic says of NC’s pardon process.

When Charles Ray Finch of Wilson was finally pardoned by Gov. Roy Cooper last month, many of his supporters asked the same question: What took so long? 

Finch was wrongfully convicted of the murder of shopkeeper Richard Holloman in 1976 and spent more than 40 years in prison. Now 80 years old, Finch was pardoned more than two years after being released from prison. This was only the second pardon given out by the governor this year. 

Cardinal & Pine spoke to Charlotte native James E. Coleman, Jr. (Finch’s attorney) about the current state of the pardoning process for wrongfully convicted individuals in NC. Coleman is the co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke Law School. 

During his career, Jim has served on various state commissions focused on wrongful convictions, the death penalty, and criminal justice generally.

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Ronnie Long
Wrongfully imprisoned for more than 40 years, Ronnie Long received word of his pardon from Gov. Roy Cooper hours after the publication of a Cardinal & Pine series in 2020. (Image via ‘Free Ronnie Long’ on Facebook)

C&P: How are efforts going, particularly in the state of North Carolina, to change the process of getting pardons?

JC: We’re actually waiting to hear whether the General Assembly is going to include a provision in a reform bill that would establish, in effect, a third way that people who have been exonerated can be compensated. That would be having a court that overturns a conviction, in effect, making a finding that based on all of the facts, new and old facts, whether or not they could be introduced as evidence that no reasonable jury would have convicted the person. 

That would be the definition of innocence. And if the judge certifies that, then the person would be entitled to compensation without having to get a pardon from the governor. We don’t know whether they’re going to actually include that in the bill. We’ll know sometime by Wednesday whether that’s going to become part of the law.

C&P: Why does it seem like the process of pardoning is so slow? Even under a Democratic governor like Roy Cooper, why does it take so long?

JC: It’s actually worse under a Democratic governor. That’s been our experience. McCrory was by far better than Cooper on these issues. The Democrats see a pardon after an exoneration as somehow pro-defendant, and so they don’t want to do anything that conservatives could attack them on as being soft on crime, or soft on defendants, that kind of thing, even though a pardon of innocence has absolutely nothing to do with those issues.

When Governor Beverly Perdue was in office, she denied pardons of innocence for two of our clients. Her explanation was that she didn’t pardon people who were convicted of crimes involving female victims or child victims. We pointed out to her staff that although the victims in the case were women and children, our clients were innocent, and so by granting a pardon of innocence for them she would not be pardoning anybody who had committed a crime against a woman or a child.

READ MORE: Wrongfully Imprisoned for 44 Years, Ronnie Long Waits on Roy Cooper to Pardon Him

There’s this misunderstanding that somehow a pardon of innocence is like a general pardon, and they’re not even close to being the same idea. 

A pardon, a general pardon, is forgiveness for a crime that the recipient committed. And the governor, as a matter of grace, pardons the person and restores his or her civil rights. A pardon of innocence is an acknowledgement by the governor that the state erroneously convicted and incarcerated the person. It has nothing to do with grace or forgiveness. But these governors don’t even make the effort to explain that to the public.

C&P: After an innocent person is released from prison, how does the wait to be pardoned affect that person’s life?

JC: When a person gets out of prison, even people who committed the crime, there’s no support for them at all. There are some groups now that have been set up to try to help people transition from prison once they’ve served their time. For an innocent person, there’s nothing. If the governor doesn’t grant a pardon of innocence, then that person has no support from the state, has no compensation, and because they’ve been in prison for so long, there’s no prospect that they will get a job with which they can support themselves.

I think that it’s difficult enough when a person who’s spent a lot of years in prison as a result of a wrongful conviction, it is very difficult to make that transition from prison to a productive life on the outside. Most of our clients have had great difficulty trying to do that. 

If they were to receive a pardon of innocence right away, then the money that would have been available to them would have allowed them to create a stable situation for themselves, that would have given them a chance.

C&P: What are some of the current cases people should know about?

JC: Dontae Sharpe was convicted in Greenville of murdering a white guy who was out trying to buy drugs. The witness who testified against him, claimed that she saw Dontae arguing with the man in the middle of the street, that Dontae pulled out a gun and shot him, and then put him inside his van, and then drove it into somebody’s yard. The evidence, from the medical examiner, was that that testimony was medically and factually impossible because the person was shot sitting in the truck from the side and not standing on the street face to face.

The prosecutor knew this to be a fact, and yet they tried to keep Dontae [in prison]. And he was in prison for 25 years. They offered to, if he would just plead guilty, let him out of prison based on time served. They made two or three offers like that to him, and he refused because he said he was innocent. We finally convinced the judge that in fact he was innocent. 

Howard Dudley, he was convicted and sentenced to multiple life sentences in prison for allegedly molesting his daughter. She immediately, after the claim that he had molested her, recanted. She said he had not, and yet he spent years in prison. In the end, the judge said that he believed the now-grown daughter when she testified that her father had not molested her.

That’s a case in which the governor has had an application for a pardon of innocence for over three or four years, and he hasn’t acted on it. But those are the types of cases where the governor doesn’t even bother to determine what the facts are, and ignores findings of fact made by the courts overturning the conviction. And it’s not clear what exactly it is that you have to do to convince him that the person deserves a pardon of innocence. 

There are no standards at all for how he exercises this authority. It’s a total black box. We have no idea what will happen. We have no idea who’s involved in making the decision. We have no idea what letters or phone calls he gets from the police or from the prosecutors trying to deny a pardon of innocence to the person. None of that stuff is transparent.