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Cooper pardons five wrongly convicted men

Posted December 17, 2020 2:02 p.m. EST
Updated December 17, 2020 7:04 p.m. EST

— Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday issued pardons to five men who spent years in prison for crimes they didn't commit.

"We must continue to work to reform our justice system and acknowledge when people have been wrongly convicted," Cooper said in a statement. "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."

  • Ronnie Wallace Long was convicted in Cabarrus County in 1976 of rape and burglary and was sentenced to life in prison. But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that prosecutors withheld evidence in the trial, and a federal judge then vacated his conviction, releasing him from prison.
  • Teddy Lamont Isbell Sr. pleaded guilty in 2003 to conspiracy to commit robbery in Buncombe County and was sentenced to 66 to 89 months in prison. He was still behind bars in 2015 when a judge ruled that he had shown he was actually innocent of the crime and ordered him released.
  • Kenneth Manzi Kagonyera pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Buncombe County in 2001 and was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison. Following a hearing by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a three-judge panel ruled in 2011 that Kagonyera had proved that he was innocent of the crime.
  • Damien Miguel Mills pleaded guilty in 2001 in Buncombe County to second-degree murder, attempted robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery and was sentenced to 10 to 13 years in prison. A judge ruled in 2015 that he had shown he was actually innocent of the crime and ordered him released.
  • Larry Jerome Williams Jr. was 16 in 2002 when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Buncombe County and was sentenced to 8½ to 11 years in prison. A judge ruled in 2015 that he had shown he was actually innocent of the crime and ordered him released.

Jamie Lau, supervising attorney for the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at the Duke University School of Law, who represented Long in his long fight for freedom, said Long turned down a plea deal that carried a three-year sentence in 1976 because he wanted to prove his innocence at trial.

"From the beginning … he wanted to clear his name, and this is an official recognition of his innocence by the state," Lau said. "So, while justice can never truly be served in this case, this is a big step forward for Ronnie."

Kristie Puckett-Williams, who heads the ACLU of North Carolina's Campaign for Smart Justice, said the five pardons aren't enough.

"With more than 30,000 people currently incarcerated in state prisons, we urge the governor to use his executive powers further to allow redemption for those who deserve another chance and to redeem a system that continues to have a disparate impact on people of color," Puckett-Williams said in a statement. "We have every hope that Gov. Cooper will recognize the responsibility and power he has to address the inequities found in our state’s criminal legal system and take further action to decarcerate North Carolina."

The pardons make Long, Isbell, Kagonyera, Mills and Williams eligible to file a claim under a North Carolina law that allows up to $750,000 in compensation to persons wrongly convicted of felonies.

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