A Concord man who has spent more than 40 years in prison for a high-profile rape he says he never committed received a new chance at freedom Wednesday when a federal court allowed his appeal to be heard.
In 1976, Ronnie Long was convicted of burglary and rape in connection with an assault on the widow of a prominent executive at Cannon Mills.
His attorneys have argued for more than a decade that the evidence connecting Long to the attack was weak, and that the victim identified him under a bizarre sleight of hand in which Long was induced to walk into a courtroom while the victim, disguised in a red wig and glasses, sat in the gallery and watched as Long approached a judge. A short time later, the woman picked Long out of a photographic lineup.
Shortly after the attack in her home, the victim, now deceased, described the rapist as a “light-skinned … yellow black man.” Long has a dark complexion and had a mustache and scruffy beard, neither of which his accuser mentioned.
Despite an alibi, Long was convicted by an all-white jury from what attorneys have long argued was a tampered jury pool. The Cabarrus County sheriff at the time crossed out names from the list of possible jurors whom he felt were unfit to serve. Several of the jurors picked either worked at or had ties to Cannon Mills.
Long was sentenced to 80 years in prison. One of his prosecutors later testified that he had not received a fair trial.
Decades later, his attorneys learned that prosecutors had withheld evidence, including reports from the State Bureau of Investigation that showed evidence collected from the victim’s home, including fingerprints, did not match Long.
Earlier rulings by the North Carolina courts found that the withheld reports and other evidence were not material, and that Long and his attorney couldn’t prove that the additional information would have changed the outcome of his trial.
Jamie Lau, supervising attorney for Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, contends that the courts used the wrong standard. Long, he said, only had to prove that the new evidence put the original verdict in doubt.
“It was not only material but critical information that the jury had to have to make the appropriate decision,” Lau said Wednesday.
On Wednesday, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed – sending Long’s appeal back to U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles of Greensboro for new consideration.
Lau said Eagles could order a new hearing or make a ruling based on attorneys’ motions.
After decades of appeals, this will be the first time a court will rule on the merits of Long’s appeal, Lau said. All previous court rulings have dismissed his challenge on procedural grounds.
“This is an important ruling to have our claims heard in federal court given the fact that we believe the state court got it wrong,” Lau said. “We believe that a federal court applying the correct legal standard will give us what we’ve been fighting for all along, and that’s vacating Ronnie Long’s conviction.”
Researcher Maria David contributed.