Wrongfully imprisoned for more than 40 years, Ronnie Long received word of his pardon from Gov. Roy Cooper hours after the publication of a Cardinal & Pine series in 2020. (Image via 'Free Ronnie Long' on Facebook) Ronnie Long
Wrongfully imprisoned for more than 40 years, Ronnie Long received word of his pardon from Gov. Roy Cooper hours after the publication of a Cardinal & Pine series in 2020. (Image via 'Free Ronnie Long' on Facebook)

Ronnie Long, who was featured this week in a Cardinal & Pine series, received word of his pardon Thursday from NC Gov. Roy Cooper.

[Editor’s Note: Ronnie Long received word of his pardon Thursday just hours after the publication of a Cardinal & Pine series on his story. Read Part 1 and Part 2 of that series.]

Ronnie Long wept tears of joy Thursday.

The North Carolina man, who spent more than four decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, got the news Thursday that, at last, he would be receiving a pardon for the wrongful conviction that had so dominated his life.

Long, 65, was incarcerated for 44 years after he was wrongly convicted of a 1976 Concord rape. He was freed from prison this August after a federal circuit court of appeals ruled that Concord police had lied on the stand and withheld crucial evidence that backed Long’s claims of evidence.

Long got a call Thursday from his lawyer Jamie Lau at the Duke Law Innocence Clinic that Gov. Roy Cooper had issued pardons for him, along with four other men wrongly convicted for an Asheville area homicide on Thursday.

They were the first pardons that Cooper had issued since taking office in 2017.

“When (Lau) told me that, I’m talking about tears of joy,” Long told Cardinal & Pine in a phone interview Thursday, saying he thanked God. “I’m grateful that Gov. Cooper came to the realization of the injustices that were done to me and these other [four] brothers.”

Long, a Black man, was convicted by an all-white jury for the alleged rape of a white woman in Concord. His case has long been a rallying cry for those who say racism has badly tainted the court system.  

The pardon is an official recognition by the state of North Carolina that Long had been wrongfully prosecuted. It also allows him to access $750,000 from a state fund set up for those like him sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. It will also bolster any lawsuits Long may file against the Concord Police Department for the suppression of evidence that kept him behind bars for so many years.

Long had been living off of donations since getting out of prison, and talked with Cardinal & Pine for a series of pieces published this week about the challenges he’s been facing. The pieces were published just hours before the news came of Long’s pardon.

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The other four men pardoned by Cooper Thursday were Kenneth Kagonyera, Teddy Lamont Isbell, Damian Miguel Mills, and Larry Jerome Williams, Jr.

Those four men had all been imprisoned for the same Buncombe County homicide, a 51-year-old man shot in a home invasion at his Fairview residence in 2000, according to an account on the National Registry of Exonerations. Sheriff’s investigators leaned heavily on jailhouse informants to investigate the crime and ended up pressuring those four men and a fifth defendant, Robert Wilcoxson, in what turned out to be a false confession. DNA evidence initially withheld was tested years later and did not match any of those convicted.  

Kagonyera, Isbell, Mills and Williams as well as a fifth man, Robert Wilcoxson, were all declared innocent by either judges or the NC innocence commission between 2011 and 2015.

Cooper, in a written statement, said the state’s criminal justice system needs to be reformed to avoid wrongful convictions like what Long and the other men went through.

“I have carefully reviewed the facts in each of these cases and, while I cannot give these men back the time they served, I am granting them Pardons of Innocence in the hope that they might be better able to move forward in their lives,” Cooper said.

Long, who had traveled to West Virginia this week to take in some holiday lights, said he hopes to be able to use the compensation to get himself situated to a new life. First up will be a move. 

He’s hoping to move out of the Durham neighborhood where he and his wife have been living, with street traffic and crime there making him uncomfortable and unable to settle down. Just this week, he had several packages stolen off his porch.

“The money, the compensation can make things a little more convenient and I appreciate that,” Long said. “And hopefully, hopefully within the near future, things won’t be so difficult for me to overcome.”