CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper granted a pardon of innocence for Ronnie Long, a Concord man who spent over 40 years in prison for a rape he did not commit.
Cooper's office made the announcement Thursday afternoon.
Attorney Jamie Lau called Long to tell him.
"I just got off the phone with Governor Cooper's office, who called me to confirm you're going to be pardoned," Lau can be heard saying in an exclusive video showing the moments Long learned of his pardon.
Long was one of five men convicted of crimes they did not commit who were issued pardons. The others were Teddy Lamont Isbell, Sr., Damian Miguel Mills, Kenneth Manzi Kagonyera and Larry Jerome Williams, Jr.
“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,” said Gov. Cooper Thursday.
Long was freed from prison in August after 44 years behind bars for a rape he didn’t commit. WCNC Charlotte spoke to Long after he heard the news of his pardon.
"That means a burden's been lifted off my back. A load of my family name, I wanted to rectify my family name," Long said.
A federal appeals court said the state violated Long’s rights at trial after police lied on the stand and even hid evidence that would have cleared him. The state then overturned the conviction but the governor had to officially pardon him for long to be declared officially innocent and eligible for compensation for all the years he lost.
"It was such an injustice and the speed at which the governor's office moved is indicative how horrible the wrongful conviction of Ronnie Long was," Lau said Thursday.
Cooper had never pardoned anyone before Thursday.
“While I can not give these men back the time they served I am granting them pardons of innocence in the hopes that they might better be able to move forward in their lives," Cooper said in a statement.
Long is expected to receive $750,000 for the 44 years he lost.
"I'm grateful. I'm blessed but we still talking about 44 years that was took from me," Long said.
Now all Long wants is to use the money to buy a small house of his own and a proper headstone for his mother, who died just weeks before he was released from prison.
"I'm overjoyed," said Long. "It relieves the tension as far as my survival."
Lau said it should take a few weeks before Long actually gets the compensation.
An all-white jury in Concord convicted Long back in 1976. A federal appeals court handed down a ruling that the lower court had violated Long’s rights, pointing out a pattern of extreme and continuous police misconduct.
In an August interview immediately after his release from prison, Long said he was just glad all of this was over.
"I appreciate the support," Long told reporters. "I appreciate the people who came out and supported me."
Long said he is excited to meet all of the new family members who were born while he was locked up in prison.
"I got nieces and nephews standing out here, that don't even know me," Long said. "I gotta go see my nieces and nephews."
There have been setbacks since his release too. His wife is doing her best to help him navigate his new world through them all.
Freedom for Long has meant going to the DMV, getting an ID, and registering to vote.
“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.
“You lost 44 years of your life? I can’t get it back," Ronnie Long said at the time. "Only thing I can do is live as comfortable as I can with the remaining time I have on this earth.”
While in prison, Long said he never lost hope that one day he would be freed.
An all-White jury heard the case back in 1976, at a time when racial tensions ran high in Concord.
Lau heads up the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic – he’s representing Long in his latest appeal – one that offers new hope after repeated pleas over the years to both the state and federal courts for a new trial.
“He was convicted in the first place in my estimation because they weren’t sure who it was that had attacked this woman, a prominent woman in the community, and that they were under a lot of pressure to solve the case. I think Ronnie Long is in prison because the state is unwilling to look backwards and to admit the erroneous actions that lead to his conviction," he previously told WCNC Charlotte.
Decades after his initial trial, attorneys discovered police hid evidence that would have helped Long’s case. The all white jury that convicted him was pre-vetted by law enforcement and Long’s lawyer says the victim’s ID of him, the only real evidence presented, was questionable at best.
“It’s a black and white thing – this ain't about right and wrong, this ain't about the law – this is a black and white thing," Long said.
Long was just 20 years old when the attack took place. He spent that day, April 25, 1976, with friends planning their high school reunion. A typical teen he played basketball, football and baseball. But this was the 70’s in Concord: Racial tensions ran high, especially when the son of a prominent black man was arrested.
“They called the National Guard, they put a curfew on the town ... Cufew on Concord when they arrested me," Long said.
Facing the death penalty, he was offered a plea.
“So when I didn’t take seven years I knew I was facing a death sentence. I couldn’t. There was too many people that believed in me. Protesting and demonstrating for me.”
He went to trial – facing an uphill and seemingly unfair battle.
"The jury was selected in a manner that is highly suspect and wouldn’t be allowed today," Lau said.
Local law enforcement worked with the jury commission chair pre-selecting potential jurors.
“There’s actually testimony from 1976 talking about how the chief of police and some of his deputies sat with the master list and crossed out names of people they deemed unfit for jury service,” Lau said.
Long’s conviction set off another round of protests with police using billy-clubs and tear gas. Long remembers the ride to prison.
“I thought, 'Man, what have I got myself into? I’m going there to die.'”
DNA testing wasn’t done in the 70’s but it would have revealed a blood type and that could potentially have ruled Long out as a suspect.
That same year – 25 years after his conviction Long’s attorneys discovered something even more shocking – the Concord Police detective on the case, Van Isenhour, hid crucial evidence: hair and fiber samples from the scene that didn’t match Ronnie Long.
“They received reports illustrating there was no connection," says Lau. "For example, the suspects hair collected from crime scene.”
The police even hid the evidence from the prosecutor.
“I put him on the stand in 2008 to testify for me. I just wanted to ask him one question, 'Did you know that this existed in 1976?'" Lau remembered. "He said no."
"The Concord police department withheld this evidence from the DA's office," Lau said.
In 2015 even more shocking evidence turned up.
“Among 43 fingerprints collected from the home believed to have been relevant didn’t match Ronnie, none of them matched,” Lau said. “That was all kept from his council at the time.”
Detective Isenhour was later sent to federal prison himself for stealing checks.
“I’m not asking for no favors, not asking to bend the law, all I’m asking you to do is apply the law, do what the law say do – if they do what the law say then I can walk out of here," Long said.
WCNC Charlotte's coverage timeline of the Ronnie Long case:
- November 2009: Concord man gets second day in court after 32 years
- March 2010: NC Supreme Court hears appeal from Concord man
- August 2014: Prison wedding for Concord lifer claiming innocence
- February 2020: Wrongfully convicted? Concord man has new hope for appeal after 44 years
- March 2020: Concord man serving for crime he says he didn't commit has to wait longer for appeal due to COVID-19
- April 2020: Update: Concord man claiming innocence will get his day in court — virtually
- May 2020: Concord man claiming innocence will get his day in court virtually on Thursday
- May 2020: 44 years later, Concord man's innocence argued in appeals court
- June 2020: 'We know this is a racial injustice' | Renewed plea to release Concord man claiming innocence
- July 2020: "I'm struggling to stay alive" | Concord man loses his mom while in prison and awaiting a decision on his freedom
- August 2020: 44 years later, federal appeals court rules the rights of Concord man were violated at trial
- August 2020: 'This is the epitome of injustice' | NC NAACP president calls for immediate release of Ronnie Long
- August 2020: 'I’ve been crying happy tears' | A man who maintained his innocence for 44 years to be freed from prison
- August 2020: Ronnie Long is now a free man after maintaining his innocence for 44 years
- August 2020: Ronnie Long's son was just 3 years old when his father was arrested. Now he's ready to make new memories
- August 2020: Wife: Ronnie Long wants to 'eat a steak first thing' after 44 years in prison, attorney plans to request pardon of innocence from governor
- August 2020: Cabarrus County won't retry Ronnie Long case, ending decades-long fight for freedom