Man convicted of rape 40 years ago maintains innocence

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CONCORD, NC (FOX 46) -- Ronnie Wallace Long has been behind bars in North Carolina his entire adult life for a crime he says he did not commit. Convicted of burglary and rape in 1976, Long, now 61, was given two life sentences.

In late April 1976, the widow of a prominent Cannon Mills executive was brutally attacked and raped in her Concord home. Several days later, the victim identified Long in a courtroom as her attacker. The victim in this case has since passed away.

FOX 46 Charlotte anchor Kayla Ayres spoke with Long in early January at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, where he lives.

When asked, Long denied any involvement in the crime or prior knowledge of the victim.

"They offered me a seven year plea for a guilty plea. Seven years, say I'll be home in three years," Long said. "My dad looked at me and told me, "I didn't raise y'all to admit to something you didn't do." So I didn't take the plea. I went to trial."

After a week-long trial, an all-white jury convicted Long, largely on the identification made by the victim. According to court documents, four jurors had employment ties to Cannon Mills, a major employer in Concord where the victim's husband had worked.

The trial divided Concord on racial lines. Newspaper clippings detail the protests and riots that broke out when Long was convicted.

He has been fighting the trial's outcome in a protracted legal battle.

"The only thing I'm asking for is a fair trial, that's all I want," Long said. "Where's the biological evidence? Where is the evidence of the suspect's hair? What happened to all of this evidence? Don't nobody know."

According to court filings, Concord police collected and tested evidence, but Long's attorneys did not have access to evidence that would have strengthened their defense in 1976. That evidence has trickled out since 2005, following various hearings and orders.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission investigated Long's case. According to court filings, the NCIIC notified Long's council in 2015 that latent fingerprints were discovered at the crime scene and run through a database. The NCIIC made no findings in Long's case regarding guilt or innocence.

Jamie Lau, supervising attorney at Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke University School of Law, represents Long. Lau said the evidence connecting Long to the crime is absent.

"They took a jacket from him, a black leather jacket. They took hairs they had compared. They took all of these steps to try to connect Ronnie to the crime through physical evidence, to strengthen their case against him, and in each case, they were unable to connect Ronnie to the crime," Lau said in an interview in Durham.

Lau said he finds the victim's identification of Long in the courtroom to be of grave concern.

"The victim was put in disguise and put in a courtroom where the attacker possibly was," Lau said. "I can only imagine it's re-victimizing the victim to put her in that situation. It's creating an immense amount of stress on that person, and the only thing I can think of, from that person's perspective, is the desire to take yourself out of that situation."

The question also remains of what happened to the rape kit. According to Lau, the rape kit was never turned over to the State Bureau of Investigation. The technology for DNA testing did not exist at the time of the trail. However, other tests, like blood typing, could have been used to narrow the suspect pool.

"[The rape kit] was never turned over to SBI as far as we know, and since it was in the custody of the CPD, it's just gone missing," Lau said. "There's no record of its destruction, which is normally the case, and there's no record of where it may have gone."

Lau said the evidence analysis that has come out already proves Long's innocence, but he believes there is even more evidence to be uncovered.

Long's case has gone from state to federal court, even reaching the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2011. The justices tied on a three-to-three vote, with one abstaining.

Cabarrus County District Attorney Roxann Vaneekhoven told FOX 46 Charlotte she stands by Long's conviction. Vaneekhoven issued the following statement:

"I have thoroughly reviewed the case, personally met with the victim, and analyzed the changing story of the defendant. I stand by the jury's verdict, the opinion of the North Carolina Supreme Court finding no error, and the multitude of judges who have affirmed the verdict. I stand by the decision of the Innocence Commission to close this case due to no credible evidence of innocence. Moreover, I stand by the victim who never wavered from her identification of Ronnie Long as her brutal rapist."

On Feb. 1, Long's federal case was dismissed without prejudice. Calling this a setback, Lau told FOX 46 Charlotte he is determined to prove Long's innocence, and that it has not changed his resolve to continue pursuing relief on Long's behalf.