A North Carolina man talks to C&P about his four-decade wait for justice. And now, his wait for a pardon from Gov. Roy Cooper.
[UPDATE (Dec. 17, 2021, 2:00 pm): Hours after the publication of this two-part series, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Ronnie Long’s pardon, along with the pardons of four other men wrongfully convicted by the state of North Caroina. In addition to Long, their names are: Teddy Lamont Isbell, Sr., Damian Miguel Mills, Kenneth Manzi Kagonyera and Larry Jerome Williams, Jr.
In a statement, Cooper said: “We must continue to work to reform our justice system and acknowledge when people have been wrongly convicted. 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.”]
Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Ronnie Long, a North Carolina man wrongfully imprisoned for more than 44 years. Read Part 2 of the series here. ]
Ronnie Long’s life has been defined by what it wasn’t, having spent 44 years behind prison fences because the state of North Carolina got it wrong.
A Black man convicted in 1976 of raping the prominent white widow of a Concord textile executive, Long never again got to hug his mother as a free man. His mother, Elizabeth Long, died this July, six weeks before a federal circuit court of appeals issued a sweeping opinion, finding “deliberate police suppression of material evidence.” That includes police officers lying on the stand.
Long’s son, now 47, was 3 when his dad was arrested and grew up without him. No coaching in sports, no seeing him off to his high-school prom. They remained close despite the prison walls, and now talk on the phone and visit frequently to create the relationship they never had a chance to fully develop.
“I feel I was robbed,” Ronnie Long said in an interview with Cardinal & Pine from the back porch of his Durham home. Now 65, Long is animated and unapologetically critical of the judicial system that was blind to his injustice for so many years.
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Long, was released from prison Aug. 27, a few days after federal judges from the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued their ruling. Only two people in the country spent more time in prison for crimes they did not commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
“A man has been incarcerated for 44 years because, quite simply, the judicial system has failed him,” wrote Circuit Court Judge Stephanie Thacker in the 125-page decision.
A Black man convicted at age 21 by an all-white jury, Long missed out on his 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, each decade spent adhering to prison rules. No time with family outside of visits in cinder block prison visitation rooms. No chance to pursue the athletic abilities he was known for in Concord, where he played basketball, football and baseball in high school. Long was good enough on the baseball field that there had been talk of a shot at a professional career.
No chance to buy a house, sit outside on a warm summer day, find a job that he may have hated or loved, or pursue a career. Long likes working with his hands, building things. He’d been working in carpentry and construction before his arrest.
Now, finally outside of prison, he’s waiting for the state to take responsibility for the years taken from him and is waiting for Gov. Roy Cooper to clear his name with a pardon of innocence.
“You got to do something that is proper, something that is right,” Long said.
If Cooper signs the pardon, it would be the first time the state of North Carolina admitted and apologized for the 44 years taken from Long. It would also entitle Long to a much-needed $750,000 payment from a state fund for men and women like him, who were unjustly put into prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
The Democratic governor has yet to sign the pardon, but his office said a decision should be made “in coming weeks.”
“That petition from Mr. Long … will receive careful consideration by me and by my office,” Cooper said at a late October media briefing. “It is a significant power of the governor to be able to make decisions about what a judge and jury have done, and I take that power under the constitution very seriously, but we’ll review that application along with others.”
Cooper’s spokesman Ford Porter told Cardinal & Pine that the governor takes the process seriously.
“Decisions on pardons in criminal cases are among the most serious issues a governor can consider, and the clemency office and attorneys carefully review such requests,” Porter said.
Now 65, Long is out of prison but not yet what he considers free.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be a simple thing to come out here and get established,” he said. “I’ve got to bide my time, taking what I call baby steps.”
He’s figuring out how to cook, starting with the basics, and adjusting to four decades of technology that came along while he was locked up. There were no cell phones and video doorbells when he went into prison. And there are bigger challenges, like figuring out how to live out his days comfortably. He has no income and is looking for work at an age when many are exiting the workforce.
“It’s a challenge, it’s a struggle,” he said. “But life is a struggle.”
He lives with his wife, Ashleigh, in a rented home in Durham with their three dogs. Ronnie married Ashleigh six years ago after she met him while studying criminal justice. She began corresponding with him, and the two married in 2014 while he was imprisoned, with Ashleigh quickly becoming a force behind his push for exoneration, including setting up a “Free Ronnie Long Now” website. They’re furnishing their new home with items from a wedding registry they set up this summer after Long’s release from prison.
They’re also living off donations to a GoFundMe set up in Ronnie’s name. Bags of groceries dropped off by supporters help them eat.
But they don’t know how long the generosity will continue to flow, and both are looking for jobs in the midst of the pandemic.
Long couldn’t work during his adult life, imprisoned when most others would be building careers, paying into the Social Security system, and saving for retirement. There’s little safety net for him to turn to, and he was initially unable to get emergency food assistance through food stamps when he applied and ran into bureaucratic red tape. He was able to finally get approved, but is still waiting on an application for disability, given some chronic health issues and the psychological toll of his imprisonment.
He’s angry that he’s still stuck in legal limbo.
“They can’t even pardon a man that you’re going to take 44 years out of his life?” he said.
‘That wasn’t a trial. It was a modernized lynching.’
Long, 65, went into prison shortly after turning 21, convicted of a high-profile rape case in Concord, the former textile town in the Charlotte suburbs.
His prosecution was controversial even in 1976. Protests broke out after Long, a young Black man with no physical evidence linking him to the crime, was convicted.
Police focused on Long because he wore a waist-length black leather coat, the same style coat the victim said her attacker wore. But it was 1976. The Shaft franchise had pumped out three films about its titular character, a debonair Black detective who donned similar black leather coats. The coats were anything but rare.
Long also had alibis. That night, he’d planned a high school reunion and spent the rest of the night at his home with family.
Long believes Concord police made up their minds that Long was the rapist, even though evidence they had at the time but didn’t disclose proved otherwise.
He ended up another victim of a criminal justice system steeped in racism.
“George Floyd ain’t the first Black man that had a white man’s knee on his neck,” Long said. “Hell, it was on my neck.”
At the trial, Long faced a white prosecutor trying the case in front of a white judge, with an all-white jury. Not a single Black juror was seated, despite 20% of the population being Black at the time.
“That wasn’t a trial,” Long said. “It was a modernized lynching.”
North Carolina, like many states, has a long and shameful history of racial injustice, the vestiges which continue today. Anywhere from 100 to 300 Black North Carolinians were lynched from 1882 to 1968, according to a 2019 article from the Raleigh News & Observer. The cruel punishments were levied outside the judicial system, meted out for perceived violations of the dominant white culture. That often included Black men falsely accused of raping white women.
The state has taken tentative steps in more recent years to address racial inequities in the modern court system, including passing in 2009 the controversial Racial Justice Act, which was repealed two years later by the Republican-controlled state legislature. The act allowed death row inmates to challenge their verdicts, leaning on research that found qualified Black residents were struck from NC capital murder juries at twice the rate of their white counterparts.
Long himself barely escaped facing the death penalty. A few months before Long’s trial, the US Supreme Court struck down a North Carolina law that previously issued a mandatory death penalty in rape cases.
Long said he was offered a plea deal before the trial that would have amounted to three years behind bars.
He turned it down, unwilling to admit to a crime he didn’t commit. And so, he spent 44 years in prison.
After his conviction, Long heard the protests from his jail cell.
He says it was his faith that kept him going, year after year, as he filed legal pleas for help from the courts.
“I knew that I wasn’t alone,” he said. “I knew that I had people around me that were watching me, I knew that the Creator was watching me.”
But what Long didn’t know at the time of his trial and wouldn’t learn until decades into his prison sentence, was that Concord police had hid evidence that would have backed his claims of innocence from the start.
“It took me 30 years to find out about evidence that was withheld in 1976,” Long said.
That evidence included 43 fingerprints from the crime scene that matched someone other than Long; reports from the State Bureau of Investigation not disclosed at trial; and vaginal swabs of the victim that went missing while in police custody. One of the key detectives who testified at the trial was put in prison a decade later for having a stolen US Treasury check.
But Long’s appeals for justice rarely went anywhere, at least until this year when the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit made the rare move to hear Long’s appeal en banc. That means all 15 of the court’s judges heard the case. They released a blistering 125-page ruling in August, finding that Concord police lied on the stand and withheld crucial evidence.
“These reports, together with the missing rape kit, medical records, and 43 latent fingerprints, demonstrate a pattern of deceitfulness and suppression that not only signifies that state actors conducted themselves in a corrupt manner, but also that they believed the withheld evidence was material enough to hide,” the court wrote.
Long’s path to true freedom waits inside a stately brick building in downtown Raleigh, built by Central Prison inmates 130 years ago. Their names are still carved into bricks surrounding the Executive Mansion.
This is Cooper’s official residence.
A group of criminal justice activists have circled the grounds each day since Nov. 3, demanding help for Long and others.
Cooper hasn’t signed a single pardon or clemency request in his first term, the first NC governor in at least 40 years to let those powers sit idle.
At least three of the other men have asked Cooper for pardons — Howard Dudley, freed from prison after more than decade in prison on an overturned child sex abuse conviction; Charles Finch, wrongly imprisoned on death row for 43 years; and Dontae Sharp, released after 24 years in prison after a witness in a murder case recanted her testimony.
There’s likely more who have formally asked Cooper for pardons, but the exact number is not publicly known. His office has declined to provide that information, claiming it is not public information. The NC Vigil for Freedom and Racial Justice is also calling on the governor to use his clemency powers to release more imprisoned people while COVID-19 rages inside the state’s prisons.
More than 46,000 people have signed a Change.org online petition urging Cooper to grant Long a pardon.
His office said Friday that Cooper expects to share an update “in coming weeks” about the pardon requests.
Before becoming governor, he was the state’s elected attorney general for 16 years, where his office faced off in courtrooms against Long and other inmates seeking to overturn their convictions or asking for early releases from prison.
When asked about Long’s case in an October press briefing, Cooper pointed out that he backed an innocence commission while North Carolina’s attorney general.
Cooper also mentioned the racial equity and criminal justice task force he set up after the Black Lives Matter movement was re-energized following George Floyd’s death in May.
But Jamie Lau, Long’s attorney who heads Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, questions why Cooper has yet to act in a case like Long’s, where systematic racism played an outsized role in Long’s wrongful incarceration.
“He’s free but he’s not whole,” Lau said about Long. “To be whole he needs the resources and opportunities to live the remainder of his days with some sort of security. And that’s what the governor can provide now.”
The Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the NC NAACP, said he’s continuing to urge Cooper to help Long.
Spearman spoke outside the governor’s mansion in mid-November, and called on Cooper to both grant Long a pardon and apologize on behalf of the state.
“I say, my dear governor, with heartfelt compassion, that although Ronnie has been released, Ronnie has not yet been set free,” Spearman said. “His freedom just does not feel free to me and his freedom ought not feel free to you because the state still owes Ronnie Long considerably.”