Man serving 80-year sentence for rape he says he didn't commit has to wait longer for appeal due to COVID-19

Man serving 80-year sentence for rape he says he didn't commit has to wait longer for appeal due to COVID-19
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Ronnie Long, who is serving an 80-year sentence after being charged with the rape of a 54-year-old white Concord woman, has been waging an almost five-decade-long fight to overturn his rape conviction. Long has applied for an appeal but the coronavirus pandemic-induced lockdown has brought the justice system to a halt.

New evidence suggests that Long may be innocent, with the rape kit missing, and the findings of the hidden evidence of hair and fiber samples that do not match Long are the key points that his current attorney is using to prove his innocence.

“It’s a black and white thing — this ain't about right and wrong, this ain't about the law — this is a black and white thing," Long says in an interview with WCNC

Long was convicted in 1976 when he was just 20 years old. He is an African-Amerian whose father was a concrete contractor. The alleged victim, whose name was not revealed, was a white woman, widow of a former executive at Cannon Mills, a major employer in the area. There was a lot of pressure to solve the case and the victim was taken to the court in disguise wherein she identified Long.

Long’s conviction — based on the victim’s identification of him without any additional evidence — could have been the result of the racial tension that existed in the 70s. Long was in the court for an unrelated case when the victim identified him as her assaulter. With an all-white jury, Long faced the death penalty. Since then, there began a long uphill battle for proving his innocence.

With recent evidence that portrays the wrongly convicted Long may be innocent, his team has appealed to the court for a release. In 2005, his then-lawyer requested the victim’s medical report only to find out that the rape kit from the case had somehow vanished. "We don’t know what happened once the sergeant took it from the hospital," says Jamie Lau the head of the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic, who is now working on Long’s case. "There’s no record anywhere.”

DNA testing wasn’t done in the ’70s but it would have revealed a blood type and that could potentially have ruled Long out as a suspect.

Decades after the trial, Long’s attorneys discovered police hid evidence that would have helped Long’s case. The Concord Police detective on the case, Van Isenhour, hid crucial evidence: hair and fiber samples from the scene that didn’t match Ronnie Long. In 2015 even more shocking evidence turned up. “Among 43 fingerprints collected from the home believed to have been relevant didn’t match Ronnie, none of them matched,” Lau says. “That was all kept from his council at the time.”

“I’m not asking for no favors, not asking to bend the law, all I’m asking you to do is apply the law, do what the law says to do – if they do what the law says then I can walk out of here," Long says. They applied for an appeal in January 2020, but his appeal was denied by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond in a 2-1 decision. 

Judge Richardson and Paul Niemeyer, both denied Long’s appeal on the basis that Long must show that each piece of evidence supporting the state court’s decision is “objectively wrong beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.”

Judge Stephanie Thacker was the only judge in disagreement. She said that the decision made by the other judges was offensive, ridiculous, and nonsensical.

Due to the denial of his appeal, Long is expected to serve another 36 years in prison. Even if they apply for another trial, it is unclear as to when it might get processed since the country is imposing a lockdown. Lau said he has no idea when he'll be able to go before the judges. All jury trials, both civil and criminal, have been postponed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Courthouses have either been restricted from the public or completely shut down. Judges, forced to ensure that the justice system does not grind to a screeching halt, have prioritized more urgent cases, with some holding hearings via video or telephone. This might cause a delay in all pending cases and appeals as well.

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