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Questioning a 30-year-old injustice

March 16, 2007 | Page 12

THE CHARLOTTE Observer recently did an investigation into the case of Ronnie Wallace Long, serving, since 1976, two life sentences for alleged burglary and the rape of a prominent 54-year-old white woman in Concord, N.C.

The media investigation sheds light on his case that puts his guilt in question. In fact, Ronnie's case has recently been taken up by the Innocence Project.

The primary question the report seeks answers on is whether or not Long received a fair trial. Naturally though, the question the media fails to ask first is whether there was ever any such thing as a fair trial for a young Black man in the viciously racist South, then barely removed from the legacy of segregation and Jim Crow, no less.

But Long answered the question himself in a recent interview. Only 20 years old at the time of his arrest, he remembers his thoughts upon seeing the all-white jury that would convict him in a trial that lasted five days: "I knew that I was going to the penitentiary. I just knew it."

The report points out that no physical evidence whatsoever implicated Long in the crime. The jury's conviction was based on the testimony of the victim, who said she had "no doubt whatsoever" that Long was the rapist.

What else to read

For information about Ronnie Long's case, read the Charlotte Observer investigation.


Concord police arrested Long less than a week after the rape for trespassing in a public park he had been banned from for fighting. At that point, he had no connection to the crime. But everything changed on May 10, 1976, when Long showed up in court for the trespassing charge.

Unbeknownst to Long and his father who accompanied him, police had organized a "peculiar" line-up; a line-up police had never before used nor would again. The victim showed up at the Cabarrus County courtroom disguised in a red wig and glasses, searching the room of nearly 50 people, including 12 African Americans, for almost an hour. Police watched from the back of the room as the victim pointed to Long as he walked by.

None of the other men in the courtroom resembled Long, according to the victim. Therefore, the police had what they needed, as then-detective Van Isenhour recently claimed in standard cop rationale: "What better evidence could we have?"

Their search of Long's car would also turn up gloves, a leather jacket and a toboggan like those the victim described. Ronnie claims that he never saw the toboggan before, and in fact, light-colored hair was found in it--Ronnie's hair is dark.

The jurors didn't just hear the testimony of the victim; they heard testimony from Long's mother and girlfriend, who both say he was home during the rape.

But Ronnie was implicated from the very beginning due to an incident less than a year earlier when Long's Social Security card turned up under the bed of a 64-year-old women who had been raped in Washington, D.C.

Ronnie asserts that he has never committed such a crime. At the time, he lived with an uncle a few blocks away from the scene. He claims that he lost the card while looking for work. The victim in the case claimed the rapist was clean-shaven, while Long usually always wore a beard. Moreover, when the victim and a neighbor, who likewise saw the rapist flee, looked through a mug shot lineup, they could not identify Ronnie. The case was later closed.

The later case in Concord was rife with contradictions. The victim's description of skin tone and facial hair did not match up with Ronnie. None of the police reports detailing the rapist's description say anything about facial hair. Yet as the report points out, most pictures of Ronnie at the time, including his mug shot taken less than five days, after the rape show facial hair.

Ronnie's mother and girlfriend both testified that he was at home on the phone, immersed in a thirty to 45-minute conversation at the time of the rape. But back in 1976, the local telephone company did not keep records of local calls.

There was more evidence, however. Reporter Stuart Watson writes that "beyond alibis, Concord police once held a tantalizing bit of physical evidence, evidence which could erase all doubt about Ronnie's guilt or identify him as a man wrongfully imprisoned for more than 30 years and free him."

A doctor from the local hospital took a semen sample from the victim and sent it to the police to be examined. Concord detective Jimmy Lee signed for the semen sample--yet the sample never made it to the state testing lab. Today, Lee claims he doesn't remember signing for possession of the samples while three other detectives involved don't remember anything.

Richard Rosen, a University of North Carolina law professor and a founder of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, says, "We know identifications made under the best of circumstances are often wrong. What's most frustrating here is that the police had evidence that could prove Mr. Long's guilt or innocence, and that evidence mysteriously disappeared before trial."

The center took on the case in 2004, saying that it has all the features of a trademark case of wrongful conviction.

The report also touches briefly on the racial tension that existed in Concord at the time. Blacks in Concord were still angry over the killing of a Black youth by a white store clerk. The selection of an all-white jury only fueled the fire.

In the courtroom, behind the victim sat all whites, while behind Long sat all Black supporters, a scene that could remind one of a 1920s-style lynch mob proceeding. The investigation reports, "When the verdict was announced, news accounts said Long's supporters began shouting protests. Fights broke out in the court. Police maced Long's supporters and one of his attorneys, Jim Fuller.

"Supporters spilled out into the hallway outside the courtroom and began chanting, fists in the air, 'Free Ronnie Long! Free Ronnie Long!' Police clubbed them, chasing them out of a public courthouse. Protestors threw rocks, breaking courthouse windows. Police had an armed personnel carrier on standby in the small mill town. They wore riot gear.

"That weekend, someone threw a firebomb into a white family's home. And hundreds marched peacefully in protest carrying a banner that read 'Free Ronnie Long. Drop all charges.'"

Real justice would mean Ronnie Long getting a new trial after 30 years in prison. But the truth also is that real justice can only exist in a society run in the interests of the world's majority, and where the scourge of racism, sexism and class inequality are buried forever.
Greg Love, Charlotte, N.C.

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