CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The North Carolina Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case of a Concord man, Ronnie Wallace Long, whose racially-charged conviction triggered a riot in the mill town in 1976.
Long has maintained his innocence while serving one of the longest sentences for rape in the state. An all-white jury convicted Long more than 30 years ago of the rape and burglary of a prominent Concord widow, whose husband was an executive at Canon Mills.
The prosecution presented a smudged shoe print but no blood, hair, paint, fiber, fingerprints or semen linking Long to the rape. The conviction was based on the eyewitness identification of the victim who pointed out Long to officers in an unusual "lineup" when police brought the victim to court to see him.
All-white police officers lined the Concord court when the verdict was announced in 1976. After the verdict, protesters chanted outside the courtroom and news video shows officers clearing the courthouse swinging batons. Protesters set two homes on fire the weekend after the verdict.
"What kind of justice could I receive, you understand what I'm saying, under these type circumstances," Ronnie Long told WCNC-TV in a 2007 prison interview.
Long has fought round after round of appeals and has refused to take sex offender classes in prison because he maintains, even after more than three decades in prison, that he never was a sex offender.
Cabarrus County District Attorney Roxanne Vaneekhoven vigorously fought Long's appeal, appearing on the courthouse steps in February 2009 to say, "As we can see, 32 years later, you can continue to ask for just about anything for as long as you want. I think, however, this closes, from our perspective, a long chapter for our citizens as well as for the victim in this case."
The victim -- in her 50s at the time of the crime and in her 80s during the latest appeal -- submitted an affidavit maintaining her confidence that she identified her attacker.
But Long's attorneys, Donna Bennick and Janine Zanin of the UNC Innocence Project, presented evidence that a Concord detective, Van Isenhour, never told the defense that he had taken fiber and hair and paint from the crime scene to the State Bureau of Investigation lab to be tested and those tests linked none of the evidence to Long. Isenhour later left the Concord Police Department and was sentenced to federal prison himself for possession of checks stolen from the U.S. mail.
Long's sister, Elizabeth Parks, said after the last appeal, "All his life has been taken away and for nothing but a lie."
The state Supreme Court takes up Long's case just weeks after an eastern North Carolina inmate, Gregory F. Taylor, was freed from prison after serving more than 16 years for murder. Lawyers in that case learned that the SBI lab withheld lab tests that would have exonerated him.
Now, almost 34 years after his conviction, the high court is being asked to consider whether Concord police or prosecutors also withheld evidence in 1976, which might have freed Ronnie Long.