NORTH CAROLINA – A Black man named Ronnie Long has been released from prison after unjustly serving a 44-year sentence for a crime he did not commit. On Wednesday, the state of North Carolina filed a motion in federal court to vacate Long’s 1976 conviction, which was determined by an all-white jury. At the age of 64, Long has finally regained his freedom after being wrongfully convicted of first-degree rape and first-degree burglary.
— Michael Stolp (@MikeStolp_) August 26, 2020
In an emotional interview with WCNC reporters, Long expressed his relief and determination never to be incarcerated again. He stated, “They will never ever, never ever ever, lock me up again… This is real. I’m going to try to enjoy every minute of it.”
Long’s attorney, Jamie Lau, who is also a professor at the Duke Law Innocence Project, explained that there were forensic reports pointing to another suspect. Shockingly, this evidence was not disclosed to the defense by the state. Lau further accused the police of perjuring themselves during Long’s trial.
A panel of three judges from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that Long’s rights had been violated and that crucial evidence proving his innocence had been withheld during his trial in Cabarrus County. This groundbreaking decision paved the way for his release.
Breaking News: Fourth Circuit rules that Ronnie Long's due process rights were violated at trial! Reading decision now, but it reverses the panel decision from January 2020.
— Jamie Lau (@LauDurham) August 24, 2020
In 1976, Long, then 20 years old, was accused of raping 54-year-old Sarah Judson Bost at knifepoint in her Concord home on the night of April 25th. Two weeks after the incident, detectives in the case became suspicious that the real perpetrator might be in court that day. They brought Bost to the county courthouse, where she identified Long’s voice. Subsequently, a photo lineup was presented, and Bost identified Long, who was the only person wearing a leather jacket similar to the one her attacker had worn.
However, Long’s alibi portrayed a different story. Both the mother of his 2-year-old son and his own mother testified that he was speaking to them in a group phone call when the alleged assault took place. Moreover, he had plans to attend a party in Charlotte on that particular night.
Judge Stephanie D. Thacker, leading the 4th Circuit opinion, highlighted “a troubling and striking pattern of deliberate police suppression of material evidence.” The opinion revealed numerous astonishing facts, including lab test results that failed to link Long to the crime scene, the absence of DNA evidence, and the discovery of 43 fingerprints that did not belong to him.
The racially charged dynamics of the case were not lost on the judge. “The violent racial history of this country necessarily informs the background of this case: a Black man accused of raping a white woman is tried in 1976 by an all-white jury,” the opinion stated.
Although Long was convicted in 1976, the trial was marred by the “systematic exclusion” of Black jurors, as noted in the 4th Circuit opinion. Long attempted to appeal the conviction but lost his case. He then filed a relief motion ten years later, relentlessly fighting to prove his innocence.
While the case may not be fully closed, local prosecutors are unlikely to refile charges against Long. Attorney Lau expressed confidence that the state lacks any evidence to support new charges. He said, “I’m optimistic the charges will be dropped. What evidence could the state present? There is none.”
Throughout his ordeal, Ronnie Long unwaverly believed in his eventual exoneration. In his own words, he shared words of encouragement, “Always believe that you can overcome.” He now eagerly looks forward to reconnecting with his family, some of whom he has yet to meet. “I got nieces and nephews out here, you understand, they don’t even know me. And a grandbaby,” Long joyfully expressed.