Wrongfully convicted NC man calls for reforms as he adjusts to life outside prison
Posted October 29, 2020 4:44 p.m. EDT
Updated October 29, 2020 8:32 p.m. EDT
Durham, N.C. — Ronnie Long is tired but angry.
Long spent 44 years in prison for a crime he says he didn't commit. Two months after he was released, he said Thursday that he just wants to live a quiet life, but he can't help but speak out about a criminal justice system he says is sorely in need of reform.
"I feel as though the state of North Carolina, I feel as though they failed me," he said. "You got a system that needs to be reformed because it took me 44 years."
Long was a 20-year-old Black man living in Concord when he was accused of raping a white woman in 1976. He was convicted by an all-white jury that included members who have had connections to the victim, and was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
Long’s attorneys said that more than 40 fingerprints collected from the rape scene that didn't match Long were never shared with the defense at his trial. Semen samples, which later disappeared, also were never disclosed to the defense, and the way the woman identified Long as her attacker also was flawed.
The Duke University School of Law's Wrongful Convictions Clinic asked the federal courts to review Long's case, and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated his rape and burglary convictions in August, chastising state officials for defending the conviction despite the fact that prosecutors withheld evidence.
"It's hard for me to believe that something like this would happen," Long said.
He said he believes race played a major role in his conviction, noting that police were under pressure to make an arrest after the woman was raped.
"George Floyd ain't the first Black man that has had a white man's knee on his neck," he said. "I'm talking about a mental knee."
Long said many other North Carolina inmates are in a similar situation, and he hopes to advocate for them.
"There's people that I know that are still behind them fences whose cases, if they had proper representation, could overturn their convictions," he said.
Long and his wife, Ashleigh, now live in Durham, where he is trying to adjust to life in the 21st century. Everything is very different than he remembers – even something as simple as pumping gas now involves touch screens – which is frightening.
He has asked Gov. Roy Cooper for a pardon, which would allow him to collect $750,000 in victim's compensation money from the state, money he says he desperately needs to get back on his feet and restart his life. A GoFundMe account set up for him has raised more than $32,000.