Free at Last

Ronnie Long moments after being released. Long spent 44 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Free at Last
September 02
13:20 2020

State drops case against Ronnie Long, Black man who spent 44 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit

By Tevin Stinson

The chronicle 

After spending the last 44 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, last week Ronnie Long was released from prison after his conviction was vacated by the state. 

Long’s release came after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that due process rights were violated and sent the case back to the district court. Instead of a retrial the State of North Carolina decided to no longer contest Long’s conviction. 

When he was only 19 years old, Long, who is Black, was charged with the assault and rape of a white woman in her home on April 25, 1976. According to police reports, the victim was the widow of a top executive at Cannon Mills, a major textile company and employer in the area. The victim described her attacker as a “yellow-looking African American,” wearing a leather jacket, a toboggan, and gloves. She told police her attacker came through an open window before pressing a knife against her neck and ripping her clothes off. 

After she was unable to pick her attacker out of a lineup, two weeks after the assault, investigators with the Concord Police Department took the victim to the courthouse and told her that her attacker may or may not be in the courtroom, and asked her to identify anyone who looked “familiar.”

Long was in the courtroom to settle a minor trespassing charge, but as soon as he stood up wearing a leather jacket, the victim identified him as her attacker. She later picked Long’s photo out of a lineup where he was the only person wearing a leather jacket. 

Despite having an alibi that placed him elsewhere at the time of the assault, and no physical evidence connecting him to the crime, on Oct. 1, 1976, Long was sentenced to serve 80 years in prison.

In his opening arguments, Jamie Lau, executive director of the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic, who has been working on Long’s case since 2016, said the Concord Police Department deliberately suppressed evidence that proved Long’s innocence and pointed to another suspect. Lau said the Concord Police Department’s efforts to frame Long included the creation of a false police report and testifying falsely about the evidence they found at the crime scene.

“Suppressing the evidence prevented Long from presenting affirmative exculpatory evidence demonstrating that someone else was the assailant, not Mr. Long,” Lau continued. “A suspect hair was collected from the scene, fingerprints were collected from the scene, matches were collected from the scene. They were all tested and none of them were similar to Long. There were 43 fingerprints collected that didn’t match Long or the victim, pointing to someone else.”

Lau, the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic, and other supporters of the “Free Ronnie Long” movement, received word from the U.S. Court of Appeals and the state on Monday, Aug. 27 and on Thursday Long walked out of the Albemarle Correctional Institution a free man. 

As he greeted family members and other loved ones outside the prison, Long, who is now 64, told reporters, “It’s been a long road but it’s over with now.” 

Although he is a free man, to receive compensation for his wrongful conviction, Governor Roy Cooper will have to grant Long a pardon of innocence.

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Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

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