Long’s final shot at freedom

Ronnie Long

Long’s final shot at freedom
March 26
05:20 2020

Ronnie Long, the N.C. man who was sentenced to 80 years in prison for a crime he said he didn’t commit, will have one final shot at freedom. Earlier this month, Long was granted an appeal hearing by the Fourth District Court of Appeals. 

Long was charged with the assault and rape of a 54-year-old white woman in her home in Concord, N.C., on April 25, 1976. According to police reports, the victim was the widow of a top executive at Cannon Mills, a major textile company and employer in the area. The victim described her attacker as a “yellow-looking African American,” wearing a leather jacket. She told police her attacker came through an open window before pressing a knife against her neck and ripping her clothes off. 

Two weeks after the incident and after the victim was unable to pick her attacker out of a photo lineup, investigators with the Concord Police Department took the victim to the courthouse and told her that her attacker may or may not be in the courtroom, and asked her to identify anyone who looked “familiar.”

That day Long was in the courtroom to settle a minor trespassing charge, but as soon as he stood up wearing a leather jacket, the victim identified him as her attacker. She later picked Long’s photo out of a lineup where he was the only person wearing a leather jacket. 

Later that day, officers showed up to Long’s house and told him he had to go down to the station to sign papers relating to the trespassing charge and that he would be back shortly. Long hasn’t been home since. On October 1, 1976, despite not fitting the description of the attacker and having an alibi that placed him at home during the attack, an all-white jury, including several who had ties to Cannon Mills, condemned Long to serve two life sentences. 

Over the 44 years he’s been incarcerated, there have been several appeals filed on Long’s behalf, all to no avail. But after it was discovered that none of the 43 fingerprints recovered from the crime scene matched Long, his case caught the attention of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic.

Jamie Lau, who serves as executive director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, said when he came across Long’s case, he saw someone who fell victim to backlash from the state in response to progress that occurred in the 1960s. Lau said it was obvious law enforcement officers who investigated the case lied to conceal information that would’ve proved Long was innocent. 

“This system in North Carolina can wear you out and wear you down and that’s what they’ve been trying to do in Ronnie’s case,” Lau said. 

In 2019 Lau and his team of attorneys took Long’s case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Despite the evidence weighing heavily in Long’s favor the three-panel of judges voted 2-1 against granting a re-trial. But the lone vote in Long’s favor, made by Judge Stephanie Thacker, left the door open for Long to finally find justice in the form of an appeal to the full Fourth Circuit Court. 

In her dissent, Judge Thacker said, “For more than 43 years, Ronnie Wallace Long has been in prison for a rape that he has consistently maintained he did not commit. From the time of this conviction until now, a trickle of post-trial disclosures has unearthed a troubling and striking pattern of government suppression of material evidence, in violation of Appellant’s due process rights pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).”

On Monday, March 16, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals voted to hear Long’s case, but with current restrictions in place due to COVID-19, it is uncertain when Long’s case will be heard. 

In a letter penned shortly after the appeal hearing was granted, Lau asked Governor Roy Cooper to release Long now. Lau noted that COVID-19 will soon make its way into state prisons and because of his age and pre-existing health conditions, Long is at high risk for contracting the virus. 

“The prison system is inadequate for social distancing which is the recommended step to avoid COVID-19,” Lau wrote. “The only way incarcerated persons can maintain distance from one another is if they are placed in administrative segregation, which results in full isolation that studies have found can be tantamount to torture. Given the serious questions about Mr. Long’s responsibility for the crime of which he was convicted, and the significant evidence of his innocence that was uncovered and is now part of the record before the Fourth Circuit, subjecting Mr. Long to heightened risk of a COVID-19 infection after 44 years of incarceration serves no rational penological purpose and is wholly unnecessary to protect public safety.”

When discussing the appeal hearing, AshLeigh Long, Ronnie’s wife, seemed optimistic about the case moving forward. She said being granted an appeal hearing was a huge win, but at times Ronnie gets frustrated. AshLeigh said he feels like any time something positive happens, then it’s followed by something negative.

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Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

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