On August 24, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, sitting en banc, reinstated defendant Ronnie Long’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus, challenging his rape conviction more than four decades earlier. Proskauer filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Mr. Long on behalf of some forty leading scholars who specialize in forensic science, emphasizing the grave impact of the prosecution’s repeated failures to disclose all the forensic evidence in the case. The Fourth Circuit agreed, and now Mr. Long is expected to be released imminently.
Over forty years ago, Mr. Long was accused of committing a rape and burglary that he has consistently maintained he did not commit. Relying heavily on the victim’s identification testimony, and the asserted “honesty” of law enforcement who investigated the crime, a jury found Mr. Long guilty of first-degree rape and first-degree burglary. He was sentenced to life in prison, and his conviction was upheld on appeal. As the result of continued litigation over the span of many decades, however, a steady stream of suppressed evidence concerning the crime, neither disclosed to the defense nor presented to the jury, came to light. It included lab-test results demonstrating that Mr. Long was not linked to the crime scene; medical evidence taken from the victim that unaccountably went missing; and, most recently, 43 latent fingerprints lifted from the scene, none of which matched Mr. Long. It also became plain that the detectives who investigated the crime lied at trial about the evidence suppression.
In 2016, Mr. Long filed his second federal habeas petition claiming actual innocence and violation of his Brady rights for the suppression of evidence. After the district court dismissed the petition, a panel of the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, with one judge dissenting. The en banc court then agreed to rehear the case.
In the instant ruling, the en banc court vacated the district court’s dismissal of Mr. Long’s petition for habeas relief, finding that a previous adjudication of Mr. Long’s Brady claims was “an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent and objectively unreasonable.” The Fourth Circuit also held that an earlier court incorrectly minimized the significance of the withheld evidence, which could have influenced the jury to reach a different result.
In a separate concurrence, three judges underscored the racially polarized context in which the case was investigated and prosecuted. Mr. Long, a Black man, was tried by an all-White jury in a small town for the rape of the White widow of a prominent local business executive, for whose company four members of the jury or their spouses worked. The concurrence noted that the detectives’ hiding of evidence took on a “particularly sinister meaning” given prevalent attitudes about race at the time.
Proskauer’s brief, which both the majority and the concurrence cited, argued for the imperative of disclosing all forensic tests, as a matter of professional ethics, sound science, and law, no matter whether the results are inculpatory, exculpatory, or inconclusive. Proskauer further argued that exculpatory forensic results, as present here, carry powerful weight with juries; their suppression is a key cause of wrongful convictions.
The Fourth Circuit directed the district court to consider Mr. Long’s actual-innocence claim and to “act with dispatch,” given Mr. Long’s age and the length of his incarceration. Two days after the decision was handed down, the State of North Carolina determined that it would not pursue a retrial, and asked the district court to issue the writ of habeas corpus without delay, which should result in Mr. Long’s immediate release. In the words of the concurrence, “[f]orty-four years is an unconscionably long period to wait for justice. It is time.”
Proskauer’s team included partner Mark Harris and former associate Adam Deitch.
Update: Mr. Long was released from prison on August 27th.