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'I can’t get them 44 years back' | Ronnie Long, now free, facing new struggles

It's been two weeks since a federal appeals court sided with Ronnie Long, prompting the state of North Carolina to throw out his conviction and release him.

CONCORD, N.C. — Wrongfully convicted and finally free, but life is still not easy for Ronnie Long.

It’s been two weeks since Ronnie Long finally walked out of prison a free man, as his conviction was overturned after 44 years.

RELATED: Cabarrus County won't retry Ronnie Long case, ending decades-long fight for freedom

What’s it like to be out after all these years? You might be surprised.

Ronnie Long will never forget the moment he walked out of the Albermarle Correctional Institute for the last time. 

“When the gate slid back and I stepped out I’m like it’s over, it’s over, I’m free," he said.

It took 44 years. When asked what freedom looks like for him, he described it as "beautiful." Freedom for Ronnie Long means going to the DMV, getting an ID, and registering to vote

It also means driving down the highway and singing along to Barry White, using his brand new cell phone – something that didn’t exist in 1976.

“I’m listening to Barry White and talking on the phone and videoing what I'm doing," he said. "It's amazing.”

Freedom for Ronnie Long is finally trying the ice cream he’s heard about for years.

“In the joint I had been seeing this Haagen Daz," he said.

It all comes in the two weeks since a federal appeals court sided with Ronnie Long, prompting the state of North Carolina to throw out his conviction and release him.

“I can’t stop believing," he said. "Can’t stop hoping.”

Ronnie Long was just 21 when an all-white jury in Concord convicted him for a rape he always insisted he didn’t commit. 

Decades after his trial, his attorneys discovered the Concord Police Department hid evidence in the case that ruled him out as a suspect — officers even lied on the witness stand.

“You take a man's life, lock him up put him in the penitentiary, and forget about him – my thing to these people is your system failed me, your system failed me," Ronnie Long said. "The judicial system in the state of North Carolina failed me.”

After years of legal hurdles when the appeals court heard his case in May, Ronnie Long and his attorney, Jamie Lau of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, knew there was a good chance he could finally walk free. But as they waited for the decision, his mom was dying. She passed away just six weeks before he was released.

“I’m like damn, damn," Ronnie Long said.

There have been setbacks since his release too. His wife is doing her best to help him navigate his new world through them all.

“I think when they’re free, poof everything is done, but trying to get him the things he needs is almost impossible," Ashleigh Long said. "We keep hitting roadblocks — there’s no record of him for 44 years.”

A bank refused to open an account for him, he’s having a hard time getting medicare, and the state mistakenly listed him on the sex offender registry. Then, a friend warned him it may not be safe to move back to his hometown of Concord.

“You lost 44 years of your life? I can’t get it back," Ronnie Long said. "Only thing I can do is live as comfortable as I can with the remaining time I have on this earth.”

As for what can make that life comfortable now, he said he doesn't ask for much.

"As long as you got clothes on your back roof over your head food in your stomach, you don’t need a whole lot," Ronnie Long said. 

In fact, he doesn’t have a whole lot. After 44 years in prison, he has no money. He’s living off of donations from a GoFundMe account.

Most people assume the state will offer some relief, but his attorney said the only way for that to happen is if North Carolina Governor Cooper first officially pardons him. In the four years that Cooper has been in office, he hasn't pardoned anyone. 

“I can’t explain why a governor who is so readily willing to speak about a desire for fairness in criminal justice who has absolute power to grant clemency has not utilized the power he has to do justice in some of these cases where North Carolina has stolen years from," attorney Jamie Lau said. "Whether or not he secures a sum from the state for all this time he’s been incarcerated, there are no guarantees.”

As for Ronnie Long, he believes he is owed an apology for his wrongful conviction.

“The state should apologize for what they did to me, I should be compensated," he said. "I can’t get my dad back, my mom, my two sisters I can’t get them 44 years back.”

If Long is granted the pardon, the most money he could receive would be $750,000. WCNC Charlotte has tried reaching the governor's office a number of times on this story and has never heard back.

WCNC Charlotte's coverage timeline of the Ronnie Long case:

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