Rudolf, Pfeiffer, Olson Get $25M for Long For Wrongful Incarceration
Attorneys for plaintiff: David Rudolf and Sonya Pfeiffer of Pfeiffer Rudolf and Chris Olson of
Settlement Amount: $25 million
Injuries: Wrongful incarceration for 44 years, 3 months, 17 days
Name of Case: Ronnie Long v. City of Concord, et al.
Date of verdict: Jan. 9, 2024
On May 10, 1976, Ronnie Long, a 20-year-old Black man, was charged with the rape of a white widow at her home in Concord. The case was investigated by detectives with the Concord Police Department, working in conjunction with a special agent of the State Bureau of Investigation. No physical evidence linked Long to the crime. The case was built upon a purported identification of Long following a contrived and highly suggestive courtroom ID procedure.
CPD officers had arrested Long on a bogus trespassing charge and then arranged for the victim to be in the courtroom for Long’s court appearance. When Long’s name was called by the judge, the victim signaled to police officers. They then took her to view a photo array and, according to her, asked her to pick out Long. The trespassing charge – the means by which investigators secured the presence of Long and the victim at the same place – was dismissed by the judge.
On the evening of May 10, 1976, CPD officers went to the home of Ike and Elizabeth Long and told them that their son was needed downtown to clear up paperwork for the dismissed trespassing charge. Long’s parents asked the CPD officers if he needed a lawyer or anyone with him. The officers told them “No,” assuring them that he would be home in 15 minutes. Elizabeth Long told her son to call when he was leaving the police station. He never got to make that call. Instead, he was wrongfully charged and remained incarcerated for over 44 years. His mother died a month before Long was set free. Her last words were: “Is Ronnie home yet?”
Long was tried before an all-white jury. The defense presented an alibi defense with numerous witnesses confirming Long’s whereabouts miles from the scene of the rape at the time the crime was committed. The ID was suspect in that the victim’s description of her assailant changed and did not match Long (i.e., attacker described as “light skinned” and a “yellow Black man” whereas Long is dark-skinned). Exculpatory and impeachment evidence was concealed and, thus, defense counsel could not effectively challenge the victim’s mistaken ID. Long was convicted and sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment. A contributing factor to the jury venire composition (four Blacks out of 100 prospective jurors called for service) was the pre-screening of the roll by law enforcement personnel, eliminating all “undesirable” (ie. Black) potential jurors.
Though substantial exculpatory forensic evidence was collected, investigators unlawfully concealed it. The jury never learned: (i) dozens of fingerprints were collected at the crime scene, but none were from Long; (ii) investigators considered other individuals as alternative suspects, including one who was polygraphed by an SBI agent; (iii) SBI analysts determined that no carpet or paint fibers from the victim’s home were on Long’s clothing, no hairs from the victim were on Long’s clothing, and no hairs from Long were on her or in her home; (iv) a suspect hair was collected at the crime scene and an SBI analyst concluded the hair did not belong to Long; (v) a sexual assault evidence kit (“rape kit”) was collected at a local hospital and provided to CPD investigators; (vi) testing of part of the rape kit (i.e., hair evidence) confirmed there was no link between the victim and Long; (vii) slides containing vaginal secretions were obtained but no record of testing of that evidence was ever produced or located; and (viii) the rape kit went missing under CPD control and was apparently destroyed. The evidence of this misconduct would trickle out over the course of four decades.
In August 2020, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Long’s constitutional rights were violated due to the concealment of evidence required to be disclosed under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). With that ruling, Long v. Hooks, 972 F.3d 442 (2020), the Fourth Circuit granted the habeas petition pursued by the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic.
Following the Fourth Circuit ruling, the state consented to an order vacating Long’s convictions and he was released from prison after a wrongful incarceration of 44 years, 3 months, and 17 days.
On Dec. 17, 2020, Gov. Roy Cooper granted Long a Pardon of Innocence.
A federal civil rights suit was filed on Long’s behalf in May 2021 against the City of Concord and several CPD officers. After suit was filed, counsel for Long received documents indicating – for the first time – that SBI personnel were also involved in the initial investigation and processing of the crime scene. Based on this information, an amended complaint was filed in June 2021, naming former SBI officials and the SBI legal counsel as defendants. Claims against the SBI defendants were resolved for $3 million in March 2023. The remaining claims against the City of Concord and CPD officials and personnel were settled for $22 million in January 2024. In addition to the monetary components of the settlement, the City of Concord agreed to issue a formal apology to Ronnie Long and his family for the wrongs done to them throughout this four-decade ordeal. The city “acknowledge[d] and accept[ed] responsibility for the significant errors in judgment and willful misconduct . . . that led to Long’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment.”