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Concord man gets second day in court after 32 years

Still proclaiming his innocence after more than three decades in prison, Ronnie Wallace Long got another day in court in Concord on Thursday, asking for a new trial.

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CONCORD, N.C. -- Still proclaiming his innocence after more than three decades in prison, Ronnie Wallace Long got another day in court in Concord on Thursday, asking through his attorneys for his conviction to be set aside and to get a new trial.

Long was convicted in 1976 by an all-white jury of raping one of the most prominent women in town, the widow of a Cannon Mills executive who lived among the stately homes of Union Street.

Long's attorneys claim his constitutional rights were violated because they say prosecutors and police withheld SBI lab reports, which they claim would have pointed away from Long and toward another suspect.

Long's attorneys unearthed decades-old reports from the State Bureau of Investigation showing the bureau tested paint, hair, fiber and clothing from the scene of the notorious rape. Long's attorneys then and now say the reports were never shared with them.

Most intriguing was the discovery of a hair at the rape scene described as reddish in color -- a hair that the SBI concluded did not match any of the characteristics of Long's hair or the hair of the victim.

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The investigator who worked for Long's attorneys, Les Burns, kept his original investigative file and produced it to claim defense attorneys never got a look at critical evidence.

Burns says, "Ronnie was a kid at the time. He did not strike me as a master criminal that could pull this off."

Burns testified that he would have had a "field day" had he learned of the SBI reports at the time of the trial.

But Cabarrus District Attorney Roxanne Vaneekhoven hammered away at Burns, pointing out that defense attorneys chose not to perform their own tests at the time of the original trial.

Going back to court after 32 years in prison to persist in claims of innocence is dramatic enough.

But the twists and turns of the case of Ronnie Wallace Long offer a touchstone for race relations in Concord, N.C., harkening back to a time before NASCAR was king, when Concord was a mill town.

The verdict in 1976 sparked a race riot in Concord. News video shot at the time shows white police officers clearing the courthouse with billy clubs. Newspaper accounts tell of two homes burned to the ground as protests got out of hand and police called in the National Guard and declared a curfew.

Thursday was much calmer. Some two-dozen friends and family of Long's sat in the courtroom for the hearing, flanked by an equal number of white law enforcement.

The hearing continues on Friday. Long's attorneys Donna Bennick and Janine Zanin of the Innocence Project at UNC are asking Judge F. Donald Bridges of Shelby to set aside Long's conviction as unconstitutional and grant him a new trial.