“It’s a blessing within itself for me to even be sitting here right now,” says Ronnie Long, free after 44 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Long, who is African American, was convicted in 1976 of raping a white woman by an all-white jury and sentenced to 80 years in prison. In 2015, his lawyers learned that investigators had withheld exculpatory evidence proving his innocence — including semen samples and fingerprints taken from the crime scene that did not match his own — and witnesses for the state committed perjury at his trial. It would take several more years and a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for Long to win his freedom. Long walked out of the Albemarle Correctional Institute in North Carolina a free man on August 27. He is asking North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper for a pardon, which would fully clear his name and make him eligible for financial compensation. “You’ve got people that have been victimized by the system, like myself, and then you turn around and you put me back into a society and expect for me to live a productive life,” he says. “I need that pardon in order to try to get on with my life.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to North Carolina, which saw record voter turnout this year, including by its nearly one-and-a-half million African American voters — among them, Ronnie Long, which doesn’t make him unusual, except that he had just come out of prison after spending 44 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. He walked out of the Albemarle Correctional Institute a free man on August 27th.
RONNIE LONG: I’m disappointed, really, in a system that’s supposed to be, you understand what I’m saying, about right and wrong. And I’m disappointed that you have people, you understand what I’m saying, that’s in positions that don’t want to do the right thing, but they’ll do things, you understand what I’m saying, to try to mislead you. You live and die by what you do. You reap what you sow, you understand what I’m saying? So, I’ve always believed that, you understand what I’m saying, no matter how difficult this thing had become, one day I will be standing where I’m standing right now. And I ain’t never gave up that hope.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Ronnie Long speaking just after his release from prison earlier this year in August.
His ordeal began in 1976, when he was convicted by an all-white jury of raping a 54-year-old woman named Sarah Bost, who was a wealthy white widow. In 2015, his lawyers learned investigators had withheld exculpatory evidence proving his innocence, including semen samples and fingerprints taken from the crime scene that did not match his own. The evidence was either withheld from his attorneys or disappeared while in government hands, while witnesses for the state committed perjury at his trial.
It would take several more years and a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for Long to win his freedom. At a virtual hearing in May, Judge James Wynn asked, quote, “What is it about us that we want to prosecute and keep people in jail when we know evidence might exist that might lead to a different outcome? … Why is that so offensive to us now that we want to protect illegal activity from forty-four years ago? … When did justice leave the process such that we let our rules blind us to the realities that we all can see?” the judge wrote.
Ronnie Long’s mother, Elizabeth, passed away just weeks before his release, which also came on the birthday of his wife Ashleigh. She had not seen her husband since March, when Albemarle prison was closed to visitors due to COVID-19. Ronnie Long was 20 years old when he was wrongfully convicted. He’s now 65 and has finally been exonerated. He joins us now from Durham, North Carolina.
Ronnie, welcome back to — welcome to Democracy Now! for the first time. How does it feel to be free?
RONNIE LONG: I mean, when you’re talking about coming out of restraints and being restrained and being able to get up and do what you want to do without somebody telling you what to do, experiencing life right now as it is — because, you know, I wasn’t introduced to this world here. This world here is a little bit too fast for me. But, I mean, you’ve got people, you understand what I’m saying, that’s trying to adapt. I mean, it’s great for me. It’s a blessing within itself. I’m talking about miraculous, blessing within itself for me to even be sitting here right now.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was it like to vote for the first time, Ronnie Long?
RONNIE LONG: Now, you’ve got a lot of Blacks. I mean, you’ve got a lot of Blacks right now today, you understand what I’m saying, they don’t even believe in that vote thing, because, number one, they feel as though, you understand what I’m saying, they’re going to put who they — when they say “they,” they’re talking about capitalists. The capitalists, they’re going to put who they want in there anyway.
But this year here was the first time I ever voted, you understand what I’m saying? I ain’t never been that one or one that was tied up in the situation like that. I didn’t put any emphasis on it. But as I’ve become older, you understand what I’m saying — like I said, I was locked up when I was 20 years old. So, as I got older, when I got out, I felt as though, you understand what I’m saying, this system is in a serious need of reform. So, I urge younger Blacks, older Blacks, people of color, all people, to exercise their right that you have, you understand what I’m saying? Even though you may think your vote don’t make a difference, somewhere down the line, you understand what I’m saying, it might be the vote to make a difference.
AMY GOODMAN: Last month, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said for the first time he would consider the petition signed by more than 50,000 people calling for your pardon, as well as three others. This is what he said.
GOV. ROY COOPER: That petition from Mr. Long, which I think was received a week or so ago, will receive careful consideration by me and by my office. It is a significant power of the governor to be able to make decisions about what a judge and jury have done. And I take that power under the Constitution very seriously. But I will review that application along with others.
AMY GOODMAN: That was North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper. I want to read more from the concurring opinion by Judge James Wynn of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled to send your case back, Ronnie Long, to the federal courts in North Carolina. Wynn is an African American Obama appointee who also grew up in a small North Carolina town. The judge wrote, quote, “Officers hid evidence despite knowing that doing so could lead directly to Mr. Long’s death. Such an action is repugnant in any context. But it takes on a particularly sinister meaning here, given our country’s historical treatment of Black men accused of raping white women.” Ronnie Long, what are you demanding of Governor Cooper right now?
RONNIE LONG: I mean, let me go through this thing realistically, right? My legal documents speak for themselves. The Constitution violations in this case speak for itself. I mean, you’ve got people that have been victimized by the system, like myself, and then you turn around and you put me back into a society and expect for me to live a productive life. I’m saying to Roy Cooper, if there’s any kind of compassion in your heart, man, you understand what I’m saying — you talk about you’re a religious person — you talk about, you understand what I’m saying, how you’ve got to do the right thing. Right now I’m struggling. I struggled 44 years to come from behind them fences, but come out here in the street and continue to struggle. What is it that I’m asking Roy Cooper for that he can only — I mean, he ain’t got to do nothing but sign his name and pardon me and three other brothers, you understand what I’m saying, who have been victimized by a corrupt judicial system here in the state of North Carolina. And these people ain’t crazy. People are like — I mean, when I say “these people,” I’m talking about these people that’s in these authoritarian positions, you understand what I’m saying, that they don’t want to do their job. Roy Cooper needs to pardon me and them other brothers so we can get on with our life, on what little life we might have left.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Ronnie Long, if he were to grant you a pardon, that would allow you to receive a maximum of $750,000 in compensation for being unjustly imprisoned. Seven hundred fifty thousand dollars. I just took out a calculator. So, that is $17,000 a year for the 44 years you were wrongly imprisoned. You haven’t even gotten that. Are you suing the state?
RONNIE LONG: I mean, this is something that’s being litigated right now, right? It’s a subject that’s being litigated right now, like I say. I’ve got a defense team. I got a team, you understand what I’m saying, that’s more or less going to go to work on this, because, I mean, let’s be realistic about this whole thing now. This is why I put all my legal documents online. You ain’t got to believe what I say. You ain’t got to accept what I say. I tell you to go to Ronnie Long — FreeRonnieLongNow.org. This is where I put my documents online, because I want people to be able to go to my web address and look at my documents and see what the state of North Carolina, you understand what I’m saying, they’ve done to me. And not only me — it didn’t stop with me. They’re still doing it.
Let me show you something. In my case, the chief of police went to the County Commissioner’s Office, got the master lists of all prospective jurors, that I was supposed to pick me a panel from, and started deleting names off the master list. He put in that pool, that jury pool that I picked my panel from — he picked who he wanted to go in there. But I didn’t find out about this ’til 30 years later.
My thing is this here. I mean, if anybody like Roy Cooper had some kind of compassion in his heart, you understand what I’m saying, to be able to see through things and do what’s right for the people, I need that pardon in order to try to get on with my life.
AMY GOODMAN: Ronnie Long, talk about those last months in prison — you were there during the COVID-19 lockdown — the dangers for you in prison. I mean, you were in your 44th year you were in prison, packed into this prison with others, the outbreak of COVID-19. What was it like inside?
RONNIE LONG: Like a can of sardines. You’ve got people, you understand what I’m saying, that’s laying around on top of each other. Pretty soon — I mean, sure, indeed, they come in. They take your temperature. They’ll give you a mask and tell you to wear that. But the social distancing is not there. It’s not there. They cannot distance the prisoners from each other without reducing the prison population.
AMY GOODMAN: Ronnie?
RONNIE LONG: North Carolina — yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Ronnie, your mom died in the last weeks that you were in prison. First of all, our condolences on the loss of your mother. What did that mean to you, weeks before you got out?
RONNIE LONG: My mom and my dad have always supported me. When I knew I was before an all-white jury, in front of a white jury for sexually assaulting a white woman, me and my family knew that I was on my way to the penitentiary. How are you going to send a tainted jury pool down there for me to pick a panel from? I ended up with 12 whites, in there for sexually assaulting a pillar, a wealthy white female, in front of a white judge, white DA and 12 white jurors. Me and my family knew that I was on my way to the penitentiary. The only thing we can do is try to outlast this storm that I was going through.
I used to talk to my mother every day on the phone, you understand what I’m saying? I talked to her every day on the phone, because after I lost my father, I was, more or less, like, trying to fill that empty void that was in my mother’s life, because they had been together for over 50-something years. My mom used to always tell me she was going to be there when I get out: “I’m going to be right here when you get out.”
Those 15, 20 minutes that those lying ass Concord Police Department came down to my house and told my mama were going to take me no more than 15 to 20 minutes, that I will be back within that time, that I didn’t need anybody more than me. Those 15, 20 minutes turned into 44 years.
AMY GOODMAN: You also married when you were in prison, Ronnie. You married your wife Ashleigh. We just showed images of her greeting you as you came out of prison after 44 years.
RONNIE LONG: Yeah, that was her. That was her. Hey, look, hey look, I’m like — I’m sitting in the cell block watching TV. The officer come in and tell me to pack my stuff. And I’m looking at him, like, “Pack my stuff? Pack my stuff? For what?” Man told me to pack my stuff and go to receiving. When I get to receiving, I’ve got a suit of clothes laying right there, and them people are telling me I’m going home. Man, I almost passed out. For eight years, the very first eight years of this 44, I didn’t never see anything but the sky. I was behind a wall so tall, you understand what I’m saying, where you didn’t see nothing else but the sky. For eight years I lived like that. But I never lost focus on what my mission was.
AMY GOODMAN: Ronnie Long, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Ronnie Long spent 44 years in a North Carolina prison for a crime he did not commit, released in August after a federal appeals court vacated his conviction and the state finally dropped the case. He voted for the first time this year. His website is FreeRonnieLongNow.org.
And that does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Adriano Contreras. Special thanks to Julie Crosby, Becca Staley. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.