Ronnie Wallace Long, a Black man now 64, has spent the last 44 years in prison serving a life sentence for rape, a crime he insists he did not commit. Despite a complete lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime, an all-white jury sentenced him to two life sentences. But now it is undisputed that the state withheld evidence including: (1) evidence of lies by two police witnesses; (2) the disappearance of a rape kit; and (3) a "legion" of test results that did not implicate Long. Is Mr. Long entitled to habeas relief? Yes. The en banc United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held (9-6) that Ronnie Wallace Long's constitutional rights were violated during his 1976 trial and conviction.
The withheld evidence included missing evidence such as the rape kit, fingerprints and other N.C. State Bureau of Investigation lab results that did not implicate Long. In addition, the decision cited false testimony from Concord (NC) Police Department detectives.
The Court pointed out that prosecutors at Long's trial asked the jury to rely on the "perfect honesty" of the police detectives who had investigated the crime. "However, from the time of petitioner's conviction until now, a trickle of post-trial disclosures has unearthed a troubling and striking pattern of deliberate police suppression of material evidence, in violation of petitioner's due process rights." "This suppressed, material evidence includes lab test results demonstrating that petitioner was not linked to the crime scene in any way; a medical authorization demonstrating sperm taken from the victim was turned over to the police and never seen again; and most recently, 43 latent fingerprints lifted from the scene, none of which matched petitioner."
The court remanded the case back to the district court and ordered that a hearing on actual innocence occur as soon as possible. The concurrence wrote that no need for a hearing because no reasonable jury could have convicted if it had known about the evidence the state withheld. "Without a doubt, no reasonable jury could find Mr. Long guilty based on the undeniable facts before us today: Suppressed physical evidence failing to link Mr. Long to the crime scene, the perjured testimony of investigating officers, missing key biological evidence, and an eyewitness identification obtained through means now illegal in North Carolina. So, while I am in full accord with the majority that Mr. Long would be entitled to additional discovery if it were necessary, I believe there to be no need for it. Rather, justice demands that we immediately grant Mr. Long the relief he has pursued for 44 years."
North Carolina State Attorney General Joshua Stein wrote in a pleading that, "The state has reviewed the court’s en banc opinion and has concluded that, in light of the court's assessment of the evidence in the case and the procedural posture, there is no viable path forward on remand."
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