There's no excuse, Josh Stein, for not seeking justice

Published April 25, 2024

By Cash Michaels

I will be restraining some of my customary sarcasm this week because the subject matter is much too important to our citizenship.

If state Attorney General Josh Stein or any of his staff is reading this, then question: what is a state attorney general?

According to the National Association of Attorneys General, a state attorney general (AG) “…is the chief legal officer of [each] state.” Among the routine duties of the AG’s Office is the “handling [of] criminal appeals and serious statewide criminal prosecutions.”

So the state attorney general, when it comes to criminal matters, is a prosecutor or office of prosecutors.

That I’m sure you know, Mr. Stein.

And what is the primary responsibility of a prosecutor?

This is where your awareness quotient has apparently fallen short, Mr. Stein, because according to the American Bar Association:

The primary duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice within the bounds of the law, not merely to convict. The prosecutor serves the public interest and should act with integrity and balanced judgment to increase public safety both by pursuing appropriate criminal charges of appropriate severity, and by exercising discretion to not pursue criminal charges in appropriate circumstances. The prosecutor should seek to protect the innocent and convict the guilty, consider the interests of victims and witnesses, and respect the constitutional and legal rights of all persons, including suspects and defendants.

So let’s be clear… the primary duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice (aka the truth, Mr. Stein), NOT convictions, if there is compelling evidence that a conviction is not proper, and the constitutional rights of a suspect have been violated.

Could be why they call your office the “Justice” Department, Mr. Stein, not the “Convict Us” Department.

But history has shown you’re slow to roll on the concept of justice, Mr. Attorney General. Consider the case of Ronnie Wallace Long.

Mr. Long, 68, spent over 44 years of his life in prison for the 1976 rape and burglary of a 54-year-old prominent Concord woman in her home when he was just 19-years-old. The young Black man was tried, convicted by an all-white jury, and sentenced to two life terms in prison, on the strength of the victim’s questionable eyewitness testimony, "the product of a suggestive identification procedure arranged by the police to target Long,” his defense attorneys argued.

Reportedly, nearly all of the potential Black jurors for trial were removed by the Concord chief of police and the Cabarrus Sheriff’s Dept., according to  NBC News.

From Day One, Mr. Long insisted that he was innocent, and for the better part of thirty years, his lawyers petitioned every court they could, both state and federal, not only to prove that authorities had the wrong man, but absolutely knew it

No one would listen.

Then in 2005, a judge finally did, and ordered the old files of the case reexamined and preserved.

Based on what was discovered, there was absolutely no evidence that linked Ronnie Long to the scene of the crime. In fact, there were volumes of exculpatory evidence that the prosecution never turned over to Long’s defense team, as legally required.

Plus, the rape kit of the victim, who had since deceased, inexplicably went missing from police custody.

Ten years of new hearings, however, did little to move the needle towards securing Ronnie Long a new trial. In 2015, Long enlisted the aid of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission Post-conviction DNA Testing Assistance Program, which determined that the semen sample found on the victim, 43 fingerprints, and a strand of suspect hair found at the crime scene (the victim’s home), did not belong to Long.

Based on the strength of the undisclosed evidence, Long employed the defense attorneys of the Duke University School of Law Wrongful Conviction Clinic to represent him.

The compelling exculpatory evidence, along with proof that Concord Police investigators lied on the stand during the 1976 trial, however, was not enough to move a federal judge, nor a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which voted 2-1 in January 2020 not to retry Long’s case.

"Any newly disclosed evidence falls short... [the rape victim] gave detailed descriptions of the attacker and his clothing as soon as Concord officers responded to the scene,” the panel’s conservative judicial majority, which included a Trump-appointee, ruled, adding that a jury would likely have found Long guilty anyway, despite the exculpatory evidence.

Fortunately, the one dissenting appellate judge, Stephanie Thacker, an Obama-appointee, gave Mr. Long exactly what he needed to petition the full Fourth Circuit Appellate Court to reconsider.

"The suppressed evidence here not only undermine's the state's investigation of the crime, but also provides invaluable fodder for impeachment of the state's witnesses,” Judge Thacker wrote, noting that those “witnesses” included Concord Police investigators.

"Indeed, the state's conduct in suppressing the forensic test results likely caused the victim's identification to carry more weight with the jury than it deserved, since there was zero forensic evidence to contradict it," Judge Thacker continued. "Finality should not carry the day in this case."

Thacker called the state’s arguments to keep Long behind bars “offensive,” “ridiculous,” “nonsensical” and “meritless.”

But NC Atty. General Josh Stein disagreed.

Elected in 2016, and again in 2020, AG Stein’s office opposed a new trial for Ronnie Long at virtually every turn involving the federal courts, and was prepared to discount the exculpatory evidence again before the full federal Fourth Circuit. 

When that evidence was finally disclosed, the attorney general’s office undertook a misinformation campaign to excuse the state’s conduct rather than acknowledge it,” Ronnie Long recalls. “This campaign included arguments that the officers did not lie, but were simply mistaken, that the concealed evidence was irrelevant to my conviction, and that I knew of the evidence all along. The A.G.’s Office advanced these arguments because it could, not because there was any support for them.”

TV station ABC11 then asked AG Stein, given the compelling evidence in Long’s favor, why seek to uphold a questionable conviction in the first place?

"There was a jury that convicted him, his conviction has been upheld a number of times," Stein told the station in March 2020. "The [three-judge federal appellate] panel that just heard the case upheld the conviction. The case right now is before the full 4th circuit and we'll see what they do."

Stein continued, "That is exactly what our job is - to uphold convictions, and all the time, defendants will say there was a problem with the trial.”

That dumb and damning remark suggested AG Stein never read the ABA’s  definition of his job. 

But then, the very next day, on Twitter, Stein had an epiphany, writing, "I misspoke. My job is to seek justice. That's what we try to do every day at the Department of Justice."

Nothing like saying something stupid on television for everyone to hear to set an elected official straight, is it?

Well the rest, as they say, is history. By a 9-6 decision, the full Fourth Circuit did not uphold Long’s conviction, and smacked AG Stein in the mouth by ordering a new trial. 

It also ruled that Long’s due process rights had been violated.

Stein finally gave up his quest to have Ronnie Long literally rot in prison, moving to vacate the conviction.

The Cabarrus County District Attorney’s office also decided not to try Ronnie Long again, and in August 2020, having spent the best years of his life unjustly behind bars, Mr. Long was freed, and four months later, Gov. Roy Cooper  - a former state attorney general himself - granted Long a pardon of innocence, meaning the state of North Carolina acknowledged that he never committed the crime he was unjustly convicted of and incarcerated for.

Long was then paid the statutorily limited $750,000 from the state of North Carolina in 2021, an amount he was not happy with because it amounted to just $17,000 per every year he was wrongfully kept in prison.

However, Long also sued the Concord City Police Dept. and the State Bureau Investigations, winning a combined $25 million in January 2024, the second largest wrongful conviction settlement ever recorded in U.S. history. The city also gave Long a public apology for the nefarious, illegal and racist  actions of its officers in 1976.

Mr. Long now hopes his case sets a new standard to help other wrongfully convicted victims get justice.

However, a few weeks ago, something happened that made Long quite upset.

AG Stein, now a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, appeared on a satellite radio program where he was asked if he regretted seeking to uphold the wrongful conviction of Ronnie Long.

“I don’t, I don’t,” Stein incredulously replied, struggling to justify why.

Long heard it, and wrote an impassioned op-ed published in the News and Observer and the Charlotte Observer, essentially blasting the AG for his tone-deaf response.

“…Stein doubled down on the actions of his office that unnecessarily caused me, an innocent man, to languish in prison. Worse, the actual perpetrator of the sexual assault I was convicted of was never brought to justice. Does Stein regret that his office aggressively defended my wrongful conviction while the true assailant remained free? Does he regret that the victim died believing a lie told to her by the corrupt police officers that his office defended?”

Important questions from a man certainly entitled to ask them, and deserving of straight answers.

So I put Mr. Long’s questions to AG Stein’s Office last week for those straight answers for a story I was doing.

To be charitable, let’s just say at least I heard back from them.

In his response, the AG said, Anytime someone like Ronnie Long is wrongfully convicted it is a tragedy, and my heart goes out to the victim and their family. Our criminal justice system is imperfect, and I’m grateful to the people who do the important work to overturn wrongful convictions.”

Stein, through his office, went on to state that he was also “grateful” to have co-led the Governor’s Task Force on Racial Equity in Criminal Justice “…which works to improve our criminal justice system, including calling for a wrongful convictions unit.”

Naturally, I forwarded Stein’s statement to Prof. James E. Coleman, Jr., the John S. Bradley Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Law and director of the Duke University Law School Wrongful Conviction Clinic, asking him for a reply, and then to have Ronnie Long reply as well, through his attorney, Jamie T. Lau.

Long responded through Atty. Law, saying, “AG Stein has repeatedly refused to recognize that there are two victims in wrongful conviction cases like mine – the person harmed by a criminal and the innocent people needlessly imprisoned and tortured by the State because they are convicted of a crime they did not commit. Until Stein can acknowledge that wrongfully convicted men like me are victims, too, and recognizes that his role in serving all North Carolinians includes correcting injustices like mine, I find him unfit for the office he currently holds and the one he aspires to.”

I also believe that, if Stein was sincere about equity in the criminal justice system, then his office would hold corrupt law enforcement officers and prosecutors accountable for their misconduct, which would be true equity. In my case, several officers committed perjury and prosecutors lied to keep me incarcerated, yet the State has done nothing to hold them accountable and Stein’s Office even defended their conduct. I guess framing a Black man is acceptable in North Carolina, which, obviously, is something that must change, and I will continue to use my voice until State officials involved in wrongful conviction cases are held accountable.”

Prof. Coleman, in his reply, made it clear that as far as he was concerned, “Stein’s recent comments about the Ronnie Long case illustrate the problem of law enforcement officials whose primary goal is to avoid political harm while they wait their turn to seek the next office.”

Coleman added that prosecutors like Stein are “indifferent” to the rights of the falsely accused and “…have expressed no regrets for their aggressive fight to keep our clients in prison, even after it had become clear that our clients, like Long, were the victims of a miscarriage of justice, often the result of brazen official misconduct.

  Coleman stated that the best way to protect the rights of the falsely accused and the victims of crime is to “…find the actual perpetrators” instead of “…manufacturing perpetrators out of whole cloth…”

Saying he has no regrets about Long’s years of suffering and his mistreatment by corrupt law enforcement officials may be an effort to appear [or] sound tough. If so, it is false toughness,” Coleman continued about AG Stein. “The State cannot separate the rights of a defendant from the protection of his alleged victim. Being tough on crime requires holding those responsible for investigating crime and prosecuting criminals accountable under law and in fact for their conduct. Every person who contributes to a wrongful conviction and the incarceration of an innocent person should regret his or her contribution. That is not weakness; it is integrity.”

Well, to make sure I was being fair, I contacted AG Stein’s Press Office again and shared Prof. Coleman and Mr. Long’s strong responses to his initial statement.

They apparently realized that the first line of Stein’s statement could be misconstrued as referring to “victims of crime,” instead of victims of wrongful convictions. So they asked if they could fix it. I said yes, and this is what they sent back: 

Anytime someone like Ronnie Long is wrongfully convicted it is a tragedy, and my heart goes out to him and his family. Our criminal justice system is imperfect, and I’m grateful to the people who do the important work to overturn wrongful convictions. 

The rest of  Stein’s corrected statement goes on like the first one, ending the same way.

“We must keep working until every person is truly equal under the law.”

Thanks for the correction, Josh. Nice try, no dice!

The question remains, do YOU have any regrets trying to uphold the wrongful conviction of an innocent man? Nothing you have said or inferred in your statement addresses THAT question.

Anyone reading this disgraceful history of the Ronnie Long case, and your part in it, knows it, and of course, Ronnie Long painfully knows it, too!

If there is a “tragedy” here (and there is), YOU and your office helped contribute to it.

Actually, Prof. Coleman nailed it right on the head…this is about politics for you, Mr. Stein, and other prosecutors who seek higher office. He noted that every NC attorney general since 1975 has been a Democrat - with three of the last five elected governor - and Coleman feels that contributes to the problem.

Personally, I don’t see how electing culture war crazy Dan Bishop the next AG will improve things any. I can’t imagine any MAGA Republican today displaying a modicum of humanity towards Ronnie Long.

Mr. Long knocked it out of the park as well in his earlier op-ed.

During the radio interview, Stein pointed to his role as co-chair of North Carolina’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice to establish his commitment to fairness in criminal cases. This is all fine and well, but pointing to work on a task force is far different than doing the right thing when having the opportunity to do so. In my case, Stein and his office had numerous opportunities to do the right thing. They did not.”

When a man’s life is on the line, when he has missed golden opportunities to be his most productive, when he has lost precious time to share with family and friends, and was denied the opportunity to say final goodbyes to his deceased parents, all because some crooked Concord police detectives and county prosecutors wouldn’t do their jobs, and then YOU come along years later and seemingly endorse their corruption by turning a blind eye to the injustice they perpetrated, only to then, when given the chance on a radio program to admit you were wrong for your part in what happened to Ronnie Long, you don’t, that lessens our respect for the criminal justice system, Mr. Stein.

Common sense should tell you that!

My role in this as a journalist and a commentator is to hold you and your office accountable, and I make no apologies for that. But I’m also a former advocate who helped secure pardons of innocence in the infamous Wilmington Ten case. 

You’ll recall back in 2012,  then Gov. Beverly Perdue was the decisive, thoughtful leader who, against a lot of negative energy and pressure thrown at her from powerful quarters, courageously did the right thing, and cleared the Wilmington Ten. I’m deeply proud of her for that ’til this day.

I sincerely hope and pray that if you are elected the next governor of this great state come November, Mr. Stein, you will also lead with a greater strength of character and purpose than you’ve shown in the Ronnie Long case.

Oh yes, under your leadership in other important areas like consumer protection and combating opioid abuse, the state attorney general’s office has performed a great service for the people of North Carolina, no doubt, and you deserve credit for those accomplishments.

But when it comes to civil rights issues in the criminal justice system, Mr. Stein, you and your office have fallen way short, and have been publicly chastised for this before.

According to Emancipate NC, a progressive advocacy group, from an open letter to its supporters published online March 30, 2021: “Nor has Stein seemed inclined to embrace his authority to make change and seek justice where it may matter the very most: in criminal cases where people’s actual lives and liberty are at stake. An informal survey of North Carolina attorneys who do criminal appeals did not uncover any examples during Stein’s tenure of his criminal division supporting the dismissal of charges on account of police or prosecutorial misconduct, although it did identify a few cases where the office felt judges or defense attorneys had dropped the ball in a way that might warrant relief. Despite having a massive caseload that pulls from all corners of the state, Stein’s office does not appear to have encountered a case in which its interest in deterring police or prosecutorial abuse trumped its interest in defending a conviction.”

In the case of Ronnie Long, Mr. Stein, there is absolutely NO excuse for you to have NOT done your job as N.C. attorney general to seek justice and pursue the truth, when it became abundantly clear that an innocent man’s life had fallen victim to racist police and prosecutorial corruption, and that he had suffered unjustly long enough.

Whatever problems you have over this - political or otherwise - you have brought them on yourself.

It shouldn’t be that hard for you to say you regret your actions, Mr. Stein, if basic human decency, strong principles and sound integrity mean anything to you! Think about it! This sad episode is NOT over.