A Black North Carolina man wrongfully imprisoned 44 years for a crime he did not commit was finally released Thursday afternoon, five years after his lawyers learned that investigators had withheld exculpatory evidence proving his innocence
The Charlotte Observer reports Ronnie Long, 64, walked out of the Albemarle Correctional Institution wearing a three-piece suit, fedora and wing-tip shoes at 5:13 p.m. on Thursday after the state of North Carolina filed a motion in federal court seeking to vacate his 1976 conviction by an all-white jury for the brutal rape of a prominent white woman in his hometown of Concord.
“Never give up,” Long told gathered reporters and supporters after embracing his wife of six years, Ashleigh Long, whose birthday coincided with her husband’s release.
When asked how he felt to be free, Long said “elated,” adding that “it’s over with—it’s over with now.”
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles tweeted her support for Long, who she said “suffered through 44 years of injustice.” Lyles wrote that she “can’t imagine the strength he and his loved ones needed to endure” his decades-long incarceration.
On April 25, 1976, 54-year-old Sarah Bost, the widow of an executive at Cannon Mills textile company, a leading local employer, called Concord police to report a forced entry into her home. According to court documents (pdf), “a man entered the home” and “put a knife to [Bost’s] throat.” His motive was apparently robbery; when Bost was unable to give him any money, her assailant “became angry, cursed her, threw her to the ground, ripped her clothes off, beat her, and raped her.”
According to the documents, “the man repeatedly ordered Bost not to look at his face, but she defied him in hope that she could identify her attacker if she survived.”
Bost was later invited by police to attend a court session at which she “identified” Long in the packed courtroom, telling officers that “there was no doubt” that Long had raped her.
“I will never forget… the coloring of his skin,” Bost told police.
Long’s trial began in the Cabbarus County Superior Court in September 1976. Despite a lack of physical evidence linking Long to the attack and the defendant’s solid alibi—he was at home with his mother and young son on the night of the crime—the all-white jury found him guilty of first-degree rape and first-degree burglary and sentenced him to two life terms in prison.
He was 20 years old.
In 2005, a judge granted Long’s motion to review biological evidence, and to allow him to submit his DNA for testing. The judge also ordered a review of the evidence in the case, a move that turned up hair, clothing fiber and other samples from the crime scene that did not match Long’s.
None of that evidence had been shared with the defendant’s legal team during the discovery phase of his 1976 trial. Nor was a rape kit, which had been prepared by the hospital where Bost was examined and treated.
Then, in 2015, the North Carolina Innocence Committee’s Postconviction DNA Testing Assistance Program uncovered 43 fingerprints collected from the crime scene. They were not Long’s.
Despite these shocking revelations, a tribunal of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Long a new trial in a 2-1 decision this January. Judge Julius N. Richardson, appointed by President Donald Trump, argued that Long would have been convicted anyway, regardless of the exculpatory evidence.
Fortunately for Long, the sole dissenting judge, Stephanie D. Thacker, citing “a troubling and striking pattern of deliberate police suppression of material evidence,” prompted a review by the full Fourth Circuit Court.
“Without a doubt, no reasonable jury could find Mr. Long guilty based on the undeniable facts before us today,” the appeals court declared, citing “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.”
“Justice demands that we immediately grant Mr. Long the relief he has pursued for 44 years,” the court concluded.
“I’m glad it’s over with now,” Long declared after walking out of prison.
Long said he was “disappointed in a system that is supposed to be about right and wrong,” but that he always believed that he would “be standing right where I’m standing now.”
“I never gave up that hope,” Long added. “They will never, ever, ever lock me up again.”