NEW LONDON — “It is time,” Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James Wynn wrote in a court filing, freeing a man who has spent the past 44 years behind bars.
At 5:13 p.m. on Aug. 27, Ronnie Long, a 64-year-old Concord native, walked out of the Albemarle Correctional Institution a free man — a direct result of the state of North Carolina officially filing a motion in federal court seeking to vacate his life sentence in prison.
“Mr. Long, a black man, was tried in ‘small town’ 1970s North Carolina by an all white jury for the rape of the white widow of a prominent local business executive,” Wynn, a federal judge from North Carolina, wrote.
The last 44 years of Long’s life have been spent in prison serving an 80-year sentence for rape and burglary charges; for the past two and a half years, Long has been inside the New London institution.
But for over four decades, he has maintained his innocence without any wavering.
Back in 1976, Long was accused and convicted on charges of raping a 54-year-old white woman, Sarah Bost, who told police that an unknown assailant had sexually assaulted her in her home before fleeing. The woman identified Long — who happened to be at the courthouse for a separate trespassing charge two weeks later — as the man responsible for the crime.
U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote last week that a “trickle of post-trial disclosures has unearthed a troubling and striking pattern of deliberate police suppression of material evidence” pertaining to Long’s criminal case. According to Thacker, fingerprints and semen samples from the crime scene that did not match Long were intentionally withheld by law enforcement during Long’s investigation.
When Long became a free man this past Thursday, he was greeted outside by his wife Ashleigh, who was joyfully celebrating her 35th birthday. The Durham native became prison pen pals with Long while examining his case during her criminal justice studies in college.
It was the first time the two had ever seen each other outside of a prison building.
They met back in 2013 while Long was serving his sentence at the Harnett Correctional Institution in Lillington. The two got married less than a year later, and during this time period, Ashleigh dropped out of college to assist her husband in finding a pro bono attorney and to start a petition for his release. Nearly 40,000 “Free Ronnie Long” petition signatures later, Long has been freed.
“Ronnie Long suffered through 44 years of injustice,” Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles posted on her Twitter account just hours before Long walked out of prison. “I can’t imagine the strength he and his loved ones needed to endure it. I am elated that he will soon be free. Many thanks to The Innocence Project, the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic, and Attorney Jamie Lau.”