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Innocence Claim In 1976 NC Rape May Continue In Appeals Court

gavel and justice scales

Attorneys for a North Carolina man who says he’s innocent of a 1976 rape are planning to request a hearing before the full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a three-judge panel refused to reopen the case.

The Charlotte Observer reported that the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals voted 2-1 last week to uphold earlier federal and North Carolina court rulings in the case of Ronnie Long. Those rulings held that evidence kept secret from Long would not have changed the jury’s guilty verdict.

Long’s attorneys from Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, including clinic co-director Jamie Lau, said Long deserves a new day in court.

“The misconduct (in this case) is simply indefensible,” they said in a statement. “We will continue to fight on Ronnie’s behalf until he is free. There is no doubt in our minds that that day will come.”

A hearing by the full court, called an “en banc” hearing, is not guaranteed, Lau said in an email Monday. He said eight of the 15 judges must agree in order for a hearing by the full court.

A Cabarrus County jury sentenced Long, who was 19 at the time, to two life sentences after jurors convicted him of burglary and rape of the wife of an executive with Cannon Mills, a textile company.

The victim, who was well-known, wore a disguise when she first identified Long in a courtroom where police had arranged for him to appear on an unrelated case. Meanwhile, almost a dozen pieces of evidence tested by the State Bureau of Investigation were never disclosed to the jury or Long's defense, the appeals court documents show.

In 2015, Long’s attorneys learned of 43 fingerprints police collected from the rape scene that were never shared. None of the prints matched Long’s, documents show.

The dissenting judge, Stephanie Thacker, wrote that Long has earned a new hearing.

“For more than 43 years, (Long) has consistently maintained his innocence and continued to search for the truth,” Thacker wrote. “In contrast, we arrive at this point as a result of the actions of the state — the slow stubborn drip of undisclosed evidence that the state originally claimed did not exist.”

Thacker, an appointee of then-President Barack Obama, also attacked the majority opinion written by Judge Julius Richardson, a Trump administration appointee and former federal prosecutor from South Carolina. Thacker said her colleagues misapplied the law in accepting the state’s arguments.

In that majority opinion, Richardson wrote that while Long claims the negative reports on physical evidence would have bolstered his case, the absence of a match is not incriminating or exonerating. “The state court discounted this evidence, and the state court’s determination was not unreasonable,” the majority opinion reads.

The opinion noted that the victim “confidently chose Long out of crowd and photo array, telling officers, ‘There is no doubt in my mind that is the man that raped me.’”