Guest Commentary: Lawsuit Filed in Ronnie Long Case Reveals SBI Investigative Records Were Concealed

(Editor’s note: On October 1, 1976, Ronnie Long was wrongly convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for burglary and rape.  Long was granted a new trial by the Fourth Circuit Court in September 2020, after serving 44 years, three months, and 17 days in prison.  On December 17, 2020, Governor Roy Cooper granted Ronnie Long a full and absolute Pardon of Innocence.  Long’s convictions were “not merely the result of mistake, negligence, or incompetence, or incompetence.  They were the direct result of the intentional and/or reckless misconduct of members of the Concord POlice Department.

On Friday, a lawsuit was filed in the US District Court For the Eastern District of North Carolina, Western Division.  The following is a published statement from Jamie Lau of the Duke Wrongful Conviction Clinic).

By Jamie Lau

Durham, N.C. – A filing in Ronnie Long’s civil lawsuit today revealed for the first time that the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation had an investigative file in Mr. Long’s case and actively participated in the corrupt investigation leading to Mr. Long’s wrongful incarceration.

While I should be surprised that 45 years passed before it was disclosed that the State Bureau of Investigation participated in the investigation leading to Mr. Long’s wrongful conviction, I am not surprised because this is what we repeatedly said during the post-conviction litigation—that the State of North Carolina was continuing to hide evidence demonstrating Mr. Long’s innocence.

Sadly, the State is rarely held accountable for these actions, so I expect little to change even given what we learned through the civil filing in Mr. Long’s case today.

Despite this new discovery that the SBI investigative file continued to be withheld from Mr. Long during post-conviction litigation, in a July 2016 filing, the State of North Carolina, through the Attorney General’s Office, told a federal court that the SBI and other entities had already been

ordered to locate, preserve, and provide to the Superior Court all evidence relating to [his] case. [He] has shown no objective evidence warranting a rational belief that any further exculpatory evidence or material exists in this 40-year-old [ ] case . . . [He] offers only speculation that something else might turn up if he is allowed to proceed with his proposed unlimited fishing expedition.

More than ten years earlier, in a hearing before State Superior Court Judge Erwin Spainhour relating to the same court order, the District Attorney for Cabarrus County and the SBI failed to disclose the SBI investigative file.

The above actions by the State raise serious questions: First, was the Attorney General’s Office aware of the undisclosed SBI investigative file when it filed a pleading saying there were no additional records in the case? If the Office was not aware of the file, why wasn’t it?

Separately, was the Cabarrus County District Attorney’s Office aware of the file when it was not disclosed in response to the court order? If the Office was aware, when did it become aware – and why didn’t it disclose the file? If the Office was not aware, why not?

Although these questions should be answered, there are no good answers. State prosecutors have an obligation to know what records the various investigative agencies and offices possess, so it is not enough for State prosecutors to say they were unaware of the SBI investigative file.

North Carolina’s Rules of Professional Conduct make plain that prosecutors are supposed to be ministers of justice, with a particular duty to “seek justice, not merely to convict or to uphold a conviction.” In Mr. Long’s case, whether it was the local prosecutor or the Attorney General’s Office, there have been repeated and shameful efforts to preserve Mr. Long’s wrongful conviction and, by doing so, evade accountability for law enforcement misconduct at the expense of justice. North Carolina citizens deserve better.

I will not be surprised if more records surface as the civil litigation in Mr. Long’s case proceeds. I will simply be saddened that, even today, State prosecutors will not do everything they can to right the tragic wrong Mr. Long has suffered with more than 44 years of wrongful incarceration. Justice delayed truly is justice denied. It is long past time for the State to do the right thing.

Jamie Lau is the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic Supervising Attorney

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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