Fourth Circuit En Banc Reverses Denial of Habeas Corpus Petition

September 2, 2020

Cleary Gottlieb filed an amicus curiae brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (Fourth Circuit) on behalf of the Innocence Project in support of Ronnie Wallace Long’s appeal to reverse a District Court’s denial of his habeas corpus petition.

On January 8, 2020, a Fourth Circuit panel affirmed the District Court, but on August 24, 2020, an en banc panel reversed and remanded the case back to the District Court for consideration of Mr. Long’s actual innocence. On August 27, 2020, the State of North Carolina vacated Mr. Long’s conviction and he was freed from prison after serving 44 years.

In the years that followed his wrongful conviction, Mr. Long filed unsuccessful post-conviction petitions in state and federal court. In 2005, he moved in state court for location and preservation of evidence. This led to the disclosure of evidence that demonstrated that the police had lied about the extensive physical evidence that had been collected, such as not disclosing to the defense that fingerprints had been taken from the crime scene (which did not match Mr. Long) and the existence of a rape kit (which could not be located). A North Carolina state court denied his habeas petition that his due process and Brady rights had been violated, which a federal district court upheld. Mr. Long then appealed to the Fourth Circuit, at which time Cleary filed the amicus curiae brief.

The amicus curiae brief detailed the unreliability of eyewitness identifications and the significance of that when considered with major Brady violations. In particular, that the victim’s identification in this case was especially unreliable. Her opportunity to view her attacker was severely compromised; it was a cross-racial identification, which can often be problematic; and the identification occurred 16 days after the attack. Notably, the victim’s initial description was vague and did not match Mr. Long’s appearance. In addition, the procedure the police officers used to obtain the identification of Mr. Long was unusual and highly suggestive. Rather than show the victim a photo array or in-person lineup, they requested that the victim sit in a courtroom gallery to identify her attacker during a public court room session (which suggested to her that her attacker was present in the courtroom and was already in trouble with the law.) The police officers accompanying her knew that Mr. Long was present in the courtroom and viewed him as a suspect, and thus were not neutral administrators. Mr. Long was wearing a leather jacket, one of the few distinct items of clothing that the victim could remember about her attacker, and no other person in the court room looked similar to him. The victim observed the court room gallery for 60 to 90 minutes before identifying Mr. Long as her attacker. The police officers then administered a photo array procedure just 15 to 20 minutes later—and the victim chose a picture of Mr. Long.

While the Fourth Circuit panel affirmed the district court two-to-one, a subsequent en banc review vacated the district court’s ruling on August 24, 2020. The majority panel ordered the district court to consider Mr. Long’s actual innocence in light of the unreliable eyewitness identification and the Brady violations. Three judges signed a concurrence that Mr. Long should be granted his habeas corpus petition without another district court review, which included an extensive section on the unreliability of the eyewitness identification. Rather than pursuing the case further in the district court, the State of North Carolina decided to vacate Mr. Long’s conviction.

This case has received media coverage on CNN, CBS News, USA Today, Gothamist, and other news outlets.

To view the amicus brief filed in the Fourth Circuit, click here.