By David M. Greenwald
Ronnie Long has been imprisoned for 44 years for a rape that occurred in North Carolina in 1976. But the evidence that convicted him is unreliable, the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence and now the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agrees and has remanded it back to the trial court for a new trial—and probably the release of Ronnie Long after 44 years.
In the majority opinion, written by Judge Stephanie Thacker, an Obama appointee, she wrote that since the 1976 trial 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 pursuant to Brady v. Maryland.”
This suppressed material “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 judge writes, “The MAR [Motion for Appropriate Relief] Court’s analysis subjected Petitioner to an enhanced burden, unreasonably applied Supreme Court law, and was objectively unreasonable.”
The ruling on Monday would send the case back to federal courts in North Carolina which would allow them to reconsider his request to have the conviction thrown out.
The standard here was extraordinarily high. For the constitutional error the judge noted “no reasonable factfinder would have found the applicant guilty of the underlying offense.”
In a concurring opinion written by Judge Wynn and signed onto by Judges Thacker and Harris they note, “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.”
Judge Wynn writes that “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 forty-four years.”
The judge continues, “This case exemplifies how our current habeas precedent incentivizes and rewards bad faith on the part of police and prosecutors. Our habeas precedent rewards state actors guilty of Brady violations for committing additional constitutional violations in order to subject the Brady claim to a higher standard of review. But keeping an innocent man in prison should not be considered a ‘reward.’”
Duke law professor Jamie Lau in an email to media noted, “The Fourth Circuit has now affirmed what we have said all along — that Mr. Long’s constitutional rights at trial were repeatedly violated by dishonest police officers and the suppression of evidence. No reasonable juror would ever convict Long knowing these facts, and it is time for the State of North Carolina to set him free.”
He added, “Our efforts in state court take on even more significance now, as Mr. Long’s life is potentially at stake due to the global pandemic … If North Carolina cares about fairness and accuracy in its criminal justice system, Ronnie Long must be free.”
The en banc decision was 9 to 6.
At the time of Long’s arrest, a rape conviction in North Carolina still carried a possible death penalty.
“Officers hid evidence despite knowing that doing so could lead directly to Mr. Long’s death,” Thacker wrote. “Such an action is repugnant in any context. But it takes on a particularly sinister meaning here, given our country’s historical treatment of Black men accused of raping white women.”
Judge Thacker hammered the state of North Carolina for continuing to defend this case, despite an array of clear evidence that investigators withheld evidence that could have cleared Long in 1976 when he was sentenced to 80 years. She concluded, “That evidence has now trickled out, revealing the truth that Mr. Long has declared for decades: he should not have been found guilty.
“Today, the Court remands to give the State yet another opportunity to disclose the evidence it should have disclosed nearly half a century ago. Based on the record in this case over the last fifteen years, I would not be surprised if more evidence does turn up. But since the evidence is sufficient today to grant Mr. Long the relief he has so long pursued, I would not wait for further proceedings on remand.”
Judge Jay Richardson of South Carolina, writing for the minority, said, “So as long as I can reasonably read the state court’s decision to avoid an objective and indisputable error, I must do so. And here, I have no trouble doing just that.”
Judge Richardson was a 2018 appointee of President Trump who, as a federal prosecutor, helped put Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof on death row.
“The federal courts do not overturn state-court convictions based on sloppy writing or peripheral problems; our role is ‘limited’ to correcting extraordinary errors. Because I find the state court’s decision at least debatable, I think AEDPA [Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act] precludes disturbing Long’s North Carolina convictions.”
Meanwhile, there is a strong movement for Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, to grant clemency to Long. State lawmakers and religious leaders have asked him to intercede and tens of thousands have signed a petition calling for Long to be freed.
An amici curiae of a large group of scholars and attorneys notes the state’s failure “to disclose its forensic analysis and the resulting catastrophic impact on Mr. Long.”
They argue three points. First that the analysis excludes the defendant from being a contributor to evidence found at the crime scene, second that such evidence which was withheld needs to be presented to the jury, and, third, the failure to do so leads to wrongful convictions.
Thus, given that evidence, there is the need to “reopen cases like that of Mr. Long in which exculpatory forensic evidence was concealed.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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