Ronnie Long Freed After 44 Years In Prison: 'The Cards Were Stacked Against Him'
After spending 44 years behind bars, Ronnie Long spent the first night with his family after a North Carolina federal judge on Thursday vacated his sentence. Throughout his many years in prison, Long, who is Black, has maintained his innocence.
An all-white jury found him guilty of raping a white woman in Concord in 1976 when he was 20 years old. After being released from the Albemarle Correctional Institution, Long said he never gave up hope that he would be released one day. His attorney, Jamie Lau, who works with the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke University, became involved in the case in 2015. He was with Long as his family hugged him through smiles and tears of joy.
Jamie Lau: We went to dinner immediately after that. And then my understanding was he was headed to visit with some family in Concord and then would come back to Durham, where I know he's at Friday, to spend time here with his wife.
Gwendolyn Glenn: Did he tell you how the reunions went with family members -- some he's never met before?
Lau: Yeah, many who he's never seen outside of prison and definitely some that he hasn't met. As I understand it, things went well. He was just elated to be there and be with his loved ones.
Glenn: So in terms of the case, what is next for this case?
Lau: Right now, his conviction's been vacated, so the onus is on state prosecutors to dismiss the charges. So we're expecting and hoping that the state doesn't take long moving to dismiss the charges. But, of course, they have till the end of September, per the order of the court Thursday.
Glenn: So if they don't dismiss the charges, can he be tried again or would he have to go back to prison?
Lau: Well, there's the possibility that he could be tried again. I don't even believe that probable cause exists here. The officers who testified in his original trial have no credibility. The court found that they perjured themselves during the course of that trial. There's really no evidence at all that Mr. Long had committed the crime, which is what we were saying -- he was innocent and hadn't committed the crime.
Glenn: You said evidence does not exist. I understand that evidence was withheld when he was sentenced. Tell us about that. What evidence was withheld? And remind us about this particular case.
Lau: Yes. There's no evidence that exists that would tend to demonstrate that Long played any role in the crime. And, of course, all the forensic evidence that was withheld points away from him and toward someone else as the person who committed the crime.
Back in 1976, the law enforcement officers investigating the case collected several pieces of physical evidence. Fingerprints, suspect hair and other items were collected. They were sent to the lab, the FBI's lab in Raleigh. The items were tested and compared to standards for Mr. Long. And they all indicated that they were not Mr. Long. So rather than disclose those results, the officers hid them -- it appears they've been purged because they're no longer in the records of the Concord Police Department -- and then lied about them at trial.
Glenn: Why do you think that happened? Because, you know, we have lots of protests going on now, calling for racial justice. And this happened to him 44 years ago. How big of a role do you think race played in this?
Lau: I think race played a significant role. First, there was an all-white jury. That was not by accident. It was by design. Prior to the jury summonses being issued, the list of jurors was passed between the sheriff and the chief of police, and they were given an opportunity to remove anybody from that list that they deemed unfit for jury service. The vast majority of jurors who showed up, all but four were white individuals from the community. All the witnesses for the state were white. All the witnesses that accounted for every minute of Ronnie Long's day, presenting an alibi that demonstrated he couldn't have played a role in the crime, were Black.
But those all-white jurors were more or less asked to decide whether to believe their neighbors or people from another part of the community. And in addition to that, Ronnie didn't have the evidence pointing away from him, showing that he was innocent. The cards were stacked against him before it even started. And I think race was a big part of the reason why.
Glenn: Now, if this is dismissed by state prosecutors, will Mr. Long be asking for compensation? And if so, what kind of compensation?
Lau: Well, North Carolina has a procedure for compensation. Individuals can receive up to $750,000 from the state. But the procedure requires a pardon of innocence from Gov. Roy Cooper. We certainly will ask the governor to pardon Mr. Long on the basis of the evidence that we now know about today, indicating that he wasn't involved. So if the governor grants the pardon of innocence, he can receive up to $750,000 from the state of North Carolina.
Glenn: Forty-four years is a long time out of your life ...
Lau: I know where this is going, and it's wholly inadequate. You know, $750,000 can never make up for losing 44 years of his life. The passage of loved ones and being unable to attend their funerals. I can tell you personally, I've been to two funerals related to this case just since 2015 and my involvement. One of Ronnie's prior attorneys, Donna Bennick, who fought valiantly trying to get him free before she passed away, and his own mother, who passed away about six weeks ago, Elizabeth Long.
So, $750,000 will never make up for the loss of those loved ones who passed away. But also the milestones -- birthdays, graduations, marriages, births of family members. He'll never have that back.
Glenn: Well, thank you for talking with us today.
Lau: Thank you for having me.
Glenn: Jamie Lau is the attorney for Ronnie Long, who was released from jail on Thursday after serving 44 years in prison for a crime he said he never committed.
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