A Black man was freed from prison Thursday after having served 44 years for a rape he says he didn't commit.
Ronnie Long, 64, was freed after the state of North Carolina filed a motion in federal court Wednesday seeking to vacate his 1976 conviction by an all-white jury. He was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree rape and first-degree burglary.
"They will never ever, never ever ever, lock me up again," Long told reporters after he was freed. "This is real. I'm going to try to enjoy every minute of it."
His attorney, Jamie Lau, a professor with the Duke Law Innocence Project, said that forensic reports implicating another suspect weren't turned over to the defense by the state and that police "perjured themselves" during Long's trial.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opined Monday that Long's rights had been violated when evidence pointing to his innocence wasn't weighed during his trial in Cabarrus County.
Long was about 20 when he was accused of raping Sarah Judson Bost, 54, at knifepoint in her home in Concord on the evening of April 25, 1976.
Two weeks after the attack, detectives who said they had a hunch that the assailant might have been among defendants in court that day asked Bost to go to the county courthouse, the records say. When Long was called regarding a trespassing case, the victim said she recognized his voice.
She later picked Long out of a photo lineup. He was the only one in the lineup wearing a leather jacket of the type she attributed to her attacker, according to court records.
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Long's mother and the mother of his 2-year-old son at the time said he was on a group phone call with them when the attack was reported to have taken place, the records say. Long lived with his mother and was preparing to attend a party in Charlotte that night, they said.
The 4th Circuit opinion, led by Judge Stephanie D. Thacker, cited "a troubling and striking pattern of deliberate police suppression of material evidence."
A main argument by prosecutors to the jury, it said, was that "police acted honestly."
Unheard evidence, the opinion said, included lab test results that didn't link Long to the crime scene, DNA evidence that went missing and 43 latent fingerprints from the scene that weren't Long's.
"The violent racial history of this country necessarily informs the background of this case: a Black man accused of raping a white woman is tried in 1976 by an all-white jury," the opinion states.
Following the 1976 conviction, which included the "systematic exclusion" of Black jurors, the 4th Circuit opinion says, Long appealed, lost and filed a motion for relief 10 years later.
He had been fighting for his innocence ever since.
The case isn't entirely closed. Local prosecutors could refile charges. But Lau doesn't think that will happen.
"I'm optimistic the charges will be dropped," he said. "What evidence could the state present? There is none."
Long said he always had faith his innocence would be revealed.
"Always believe that you can overcome," he said.
He looked forward to catching up with family, some of whom he has yet to meet.
"I got nieces and nephews out here, you understand, they don't even know me," he said. "And a grandbaby."