For the first time in what feels like forever, Ronnie Long has hope—a glimmer of light at the end of what has been a very long, very dark tunnel.
It’s been nearly forty-three years since his conviction and life sentence (later reduced to eighty years) for the rape of a wealthy Concord woman. He’s always maintained his innocence, calling his trial in front of an all-white jury a sham and arguing that the police hid evidence that could have exonerated him. But court after court rejected his appeals, and years behind bars stretched into decades.
On March 20, however, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond will hear oral arguments on Long’s claim that the state violated his right to a fair trial by not turning over exculpatory evidence before his trial. If the court rules in his favor, he could walk out of Albemarle Correctional Institution a free man.
“I’ve never been on this level here before,” the sixty-three-year-old told the INDY last week. “It’s a victory in itself when you’re talking about the federal court system.”
North Carolina’s courts, after all, haven’t been sympathetic to his case. In 2011, the state Supreme Court split 3–3, with one justice abstaining, on whether evidence that wasn’t turned over to Long’s trial lawyers—but was unearthed in 2005 after the UNC Innocence Project took up his case—should invalidate his 1976 conviction. Without a decision, the Cabarrus County Superior Court’s ruling upholding Long’s verdict stood.
According to a review of the case history included in Long’s appeal to the Fourth Circuit, Long’s defense team learned in 2005 that “certain State Bureau of Investigation forensic reports had been suppressed for 29 years.” These reports showed that a hair found at the crime scene wasn’t Long’s, that Long’s hair wasn’t on the victim’s clothes, that Long’s clothing contained no traces of paint or carpet fibers from the scene, and that partially burned matches recovered from the scene were different from ones found in Long’s car.
In addition, the appeal alleges, a police investigator “created a second summary report of evidence collected in the case [that] excluded information about testing the evidence listed above, with the evident goal of concealing that the items were transported to the SBI Lab and tested.” And while the Concord police had taken biological evidence from the victim in 1976, by 2005, it had disappeared—and with it, any hope of clearing Long through DNA.
“I got lynched in a courtroom,” Long says. “The only thing is, you just didn’t have the tree and the rope. I’ve got an imaginary rope around my neck. I’ve got imaginary shackles on my hands and feet.”
As the INDY reported last year, Long’s conviction was based primarily on the victim’s eyewitness identification, which happened fifteen days after the crime under unusual circumstances. Detectives asked the victim, who has since died, to come to the courthouse in disguise. They told her she might see her assailant there. Long was in court on a misdemeanor trespassing charge, which was dismissed. When the victim saw Long—she later called his leather jacket “identical” to her attacker’s—she identified him as her assailant, though he had a darker complexion than what she’d described to detectives.
Long’s appeal argues that, while state courts found that identification admissible, it should be viewed in the context of “the favorable evidence that was suppressed. When the proper materiality assessment is done, the identification is underwhelming and unreliable.”
The state’s view is that, even if Long had that evidence before trial, it wouldn’t have changed the jury’s mind, which it asserts is the legal standard for overturning the verdict. And some of the so-called suppressed evidence, according to state filings, was disclosed. The other evidence wasn’t as exculpatory as Long’s attorneys claim, wasn’t sought by his trial lawyers, or “was of so little value that it could not have had a reasonable probability of causing a different result.” What’s more, the state argues, Long’s trial lawyers knew or should have known about the original evidence report, but they never asked for it.
After losing at the state level, Long took his case to the U.S. Middle District Court of North Carolina. He didn’t have better luck there. In May, a Middle District magistrate judge ruled against Long’s claim that the allegedly suppressed evidence cost him a fair trial. In July, a district court judge agreed. Long appealed to the Fourth Circuit. Last fall, he finally some good news: The appeals court had agreed to hear his case.
(In 2016, the Middle District also rejected a petition from Long focused on new fingerprint evidence, unearthed by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, that his attorneys say fails to connect him to the crime scene but that Concord police initially denied having in their custody. Long appealed that ruling as well, and the Fourth Circuit ordered the Middle District to take another look.)
While the state contends that the legal issue in Long’s appeal is whether there is a “reasonable probability” that the suppressed evidence would have altered the outcome, that’s not so, says his attorney, Jamie T. Lau of the Duke University School of Law’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic. Instead, Lau argues that the question is whether Long’s trial was “fundamentally unfair.” Had jurors known that the forensic evidence didn’t put Long at the scene and that law enforcement officers “falsely testified and falsified reports to ensure that the test results remained concealed,” Lau writes in the appeal, they might have discounted the victim’s identification.
Long says he’s confident. If nothing else, he wants to see the Fourth Circuit hold the state accountable for its handling of his case.
“The Fourth Circuit wants to see how [the state’s lawyers are] going to respond to these questions that they’re going to ask them,” he says. “Because I know Jamie’s going to [chop] them up. There ain’t no doubt in my mind.”
Long’s wife, Ashleigh—a Durham resident who was born almost a decade after Long went to prison, became interested in his case as a criminology student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and married Long in 2014—wants Attorney General Josh Stein to stop fighting her husband’s appeal.
“I’m not asking [Stein] to break the law,” she says. “Just do what the law says. Don’t fight this shit. Just admit the state did wrong.”
Last Wednesday, she and several dozen students from Winston-Salem State University packed into a conference room in the state Department of Justice office in downtown Raleigh to petition Stein to drop the case. (They saw—and felt blown off by—his chief of staff instead.) From there, they marched to the legislative building, chanting, “Free Ronnie Long.”
“We’re getting old,” said Larry Little, a sixty-nine-year-old civil rights leader and a founding member of the Winston-Salem Black Panther Party, who helped organize the students. “We’re trying to rear a new group of freedom fighters—those who have the unmitigated gall to speak truth to power.”
Ronnie Long is getting old, too. If he doesn’t prevail in court, he’s scheduled for release on April 20, 2056. He’ll be one hundred years old.
Additional reporting by Leigh Tauss.
Contact editorial assistant Cole Villena by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @colevillena. Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.