Judge blasts ‘lies’, errors in 1976 rape case, but Ronnie Long stays in prison for now

Published: Jan. 10, 2020 at 4:49 PM EST
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CONCORD, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - Ronnie Long’s five-decade fight to overturn his rape conviction was dealt a significant blow this week when federal judges acknowledged that police corrupted the original investigation but refused to reopen the Concord man’s case.

The 2-1 decision Wednesday by a panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., upholds earlier federal and North Carolina court rulings that the evidence kept secret from Long at his 1976 trial likely would not have changed the guilty verdict handed down by the Cabarrus County jury.

Long was 19 when he was arrested. He would be close to 100 if he lives long enough to finish his 80-year sentence.

His case reads like a John Grisham novel: a young African-American man convicted by an all-white jury of a horrifying crime — the rape of the wife of an executive with Cannon Mills, the signature employer of what was then a textile company town.

The well-known victim, wearing a disguise, first identified Long in a courtroom where police had arranged for him to appear on an unrelated case.

The victim’s identification — though contradictory at times — proved pivotal. Close to a dozen pieces of evidence tested by the State Bureau of Investigation — evidence that could have weakened the prosecution’s case — were never disclosed to the defense or jury, the appeals court documents show.

As recently as 2015 — almost 30 years after the trial — Long’s attorneys learned of 43 fingerprints police collected from the rape scene but never shared. None of the prints matched Long’s, documents show.

Ronnie Long stands in a hallway at the Albemarle Correctional Institution in 2017. Long was...
Ronnie Long stands in a hallway at the Albemarle Correctional Institution in 2017. Long was convicted of rape in 1976 in Concord, NC. He is trying to get another trial to prove his innocence. Observer Staff.(PETER WEINBERGER CHARLOTTE OBSERVER FILE PHOTO)

Now, Long’s attorneys from Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic say they will request a hearing before the full Fourth Circuit, which handles cases from the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.

That appeal carries the momentum of a withering rebuke of the state’s case against Long by the Fourth Circuit’s Stephanie Thacker, who said in her dissent this week that Long has earned a new hearing, despite the argument affirmed by her two colleagues that the case has dragged on long enough.

“For more than 43 years, (Long) has consistently maintained his innocence and continued to search for the truth,” the West Virginia judge wrote. “In contrast we arrive at this point as a result of the actions of the state — the slow stubborn drip of undisclosed evidence that the state originally claimed did not exist.

“In this circumstances, (Long) must prevail,” Thacker said. “To hold otherwise would provide incentive for the state to lie, obfuscate and withhold evidence for a long enough period ... That, I cannot abide.”

Abandoning judicial restraint, the Obama-appointee described portions of the state’s arguments opposing a new evidentiary hearing as “offensive,” “ridiculous,” “nonsensical” and “meritless.”

Thacker also attacked the majority opinion — which was written by Judge Julius Richardson, a former federal prosecutor from South Carolina appointed to the court by President Trump — saying her colleagues misapplied the law in accepting the state’s arguments.

In one bluntly worded section, Thacker homed in on the semen sample collected from the rape victim shortly after the attack, which was among the evidence never disclosed to Long’s trial attorneys.

Since prosecutors never used the rape kit at trial, according to the majority opinion, the evidence was immaterial. Besides, Richardson and colleague Paul Niemeyer of Maryland noted, Long’s attorneys knew semen had been collected and were “free to point out the potential exculpatory value of further testing.”

Thacker pounced, dismissing the original argument by the state as “nonsensical and offensive” while contending that it turned the prosecution’s burden of proof “on its head.”

“It’s the state’s job to build a case against the defendant. And when the state tests evidence in an effort to build that case, it is the state’s responsibility to turn over the results to the defendant ... rather than hide the fact that the tests ever occurred in the first place,” she wrote.

Otherwise, she said, defense attorneys would have to assume that the prosecution withholds or lies about evidence. “In this case, the state did lie and withhold evidence. But one would hope that is not the norm in North Carolina.”

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s office, which argued the case last year, declined comment Friday, a spokeswoman said.

Long’s attorneys from Duke, including clinic co-director Jamie Lau, said Long deserves a new day in court.

“The misconduct (in this case) is simply indefensible,” they said in a statement. “We will continue to fight on Ronnie’s behalf until he is free. There is no doubt in our minds that that day will come.”

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