Ronnie Long RonnieLong2
Ronnie Long speaks to reporters Thursday afternoon following his release from a NC prison. A federal found critical evidence proving his innocence was withheld at a 1976 trial on rape charges. (Image via WCNC live stream.)

NC prosecutors plan on vacating Ronnie Long’s 1976 conviction after a federal circuit court ruled this week police withheld key evidence.

UPDATED: This article has changed to reflect Ronnie Long’s release from a NC prison Thursday afternoon, as reported by Charlotte TV station WCNC.

Ronnie Long has been behind bars in North Carolina for 44 years, imprisoned for a rape he says he didn’t commit. 

He was released from Ablemarle Correctional Institution Thursday afternoon, after his attorneys charge that investigators hid critical evidence from Long for decades.  

On Wednesday, Jamie Lau, Long’s attorney with the Duke Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, announced on Twitter that prosecutors from NC Attorney General Josh Stein’s office indicated they will stop their efforts to keep Long in prison.  

“While it will take some time for the courts to do what is needed to vacate the convictions, the State has set in motion a process that will lead to Ronnie’s freedom,” Lau wrote on Twitter. He had spoken with his client and reported that Long was “grateful, overwhelmed, and looks forward to reuniting with his loved ones.”

Long’s wife Ashleigh, who married an imprisoned Long six years ago, told Cardinal & Pine she’s been overwhelmed since Long called her earlier Wednesday with the news.

“I am elated, there’s really no words,” she said. “I’m excited that the state of North Carolina is finally doing something that is right and what is just for Ronnie Long.”  

Evidence Withheld

Long, now 64, was convicted in 1976 in connection with the high-profile rape and burglary of a white, prominent 54-year-old Concord widow. Long, who is Black and was a talented 20-year-old athlete at the time, was convicted by an all-white Cabarrus County jury and given two life sentences in what was still a segregated community.

In the decades after his conviction, Long and his attorneys discovered that hair samples and fingerprint evidence had been collected from the crime scene, but were not disclosed to Long nor his attorneys, according to CBS News and other news outlets that have reported on the case. Tests of the samples later showed no matches to Long.

RELATED: Gov. Cooper Launches Criminal Justice Task Force

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled this week that Long’s due process rights were violated and ordered a federal district court to reconsider Long’s claims of innocence.

The federal circuit court, in its 9-6 ruling published Monday, found that “a trickle of posttrial disclosures has unearthed a troubling and striking patterns of deliberate police suppression of material evidence.”

Three of the judges went further, writing in a concurring opinion that Long was innocent and that the criminal justice process had failed him.

“Without a doubt, no reasonable jury could find Mr. Long guilty based on the undeniable facts before us today: suppressed physical evidence failing to link Mr. Long to the crime scene, the perjured testimony of investigating officers, missing key biological evidence, and an eyewitness identification obtained through means now illegal in North Carolina,” wrote US Circuit Judge James A. Wynn, who is from North Carolina

Freedom within Sight

The decision Wednesday by prosecutors in Stein’s office to vacate the case means Long will be freed shortly, though an exact release date was not available.

It’s been especially stressful with Long in prison during the COVID-19 pandemic, with concerns he could contract the dangerous disease in the prison where he sleeps in close quarters to others, Ashleigh Long told Cardinal & Pine

She noted that his birthday is coming up on Sept. 15, and that for the first time in more than four decades, he’ll be spending it out of prison.

“It looks like Ronnie will be celebrating as a free man,” she said.