After 44 years, Ronnie Long released from prison Thursday

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ALBEMARLE, N.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) – A man who was wrongly imprisoned for 44 years is being released Thursday, after a judge overturned his conviction.

In late April 1976, the widow of a prominent Cannon Mills executive was brutally attacked and raped in her Concord home. Several days later, the victim identified Ronnie Long, of Concord, in a courtroom as her attacker. The victim in this case has since passed away.

Long was convicted by an all-white jury after a week-long trial, largely on the identification made by the victim.

According to court documents, four jurors had employment ties to Cannon Mills, a major employer in Concord where the victim’s husband had worked.

The trial divided Concord on racial lines. Newspaper clippings detail the protests and riots that broke out when Long was convicted.

Long was sentenced to 80 years, but he has always maintained his innocence.

“They offered me a seven year plea for a guilty plea. Seven years, say I’ll be home in three years,” Long said in an interview. “My dad looked at me and told me, “I didn’t raise y’all to admit to something you didn’t do.” So I didn’t take the plea. I went to trial.”

According to court filings, Long’s attorney’s did not have access to the evidence that Concord police collected and tested. They say that would have strengthened Long’s defense in 1976. That evidence has trickled out since 2005, following various hearings and orders.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission began investigating Long’s case and in 2015, they notified Long’s council that latent fingerprints were discovered at the crime scene and run through a database.

Jamie Lau, who was representing Long through the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic had said the evidence connecting Long to the crime was absent.

“They took a jacket from him, a black leather jacket. They took hairs they had compared. They took all of these steps to try to connect Ronnie to the crime through physical evidence, to strengthen their case against him, and in each case, they were unable to connect Ronnie to the crime,” Lau said in an interview in Durham.

Lau said he found the victim’s identification of Long in the courtroom to be of grave concern.

“The victim was put in disguise and put in a courtroom where the attacker possibly was,” Lau said. “I can only imagine it’s re-victimizing the victim to put her in that situation. It’s creating an immense amount of stress on that person, and the only thing I can think of, from that person’s perspective, is the desire to take yourself out of that situation.”

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There was also a question of what happened to the rape kit.  According to Lau, the rape kit was never turned over to the State Bureau of Investigation. While the technology for DNA testing did not exist at the time of the trial, other tests like blood typing, could have been used to narrow the suspect pool.

“[The rape kit] was never turned over to SBI as far as we know, and since it was in the custody of the CPD, it’s just gone missing,” Lau said. “There’s no record of its destruction, which is normally the case, and there’s no record of where it may have gone.”

Long’s case went from state to federal court, even reaching the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2011. The justices tied on a three-to-three vote, with one abstaining.

This year, the court ruled that 44 years ago Concord investigators withheld evidence that could have freed Long, including fingerprints and hair samples and that the description of the suspect didn’t match Long, and a lineup in the case was manipulated.

On Wednesday, the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic announced that they had secured Long’s release.

Long left the Albemarle Correctional Institution around 5:30 p.m. Thursday. He spoke with media, saying he appreciates those who have stood by him and that he plans to enjoy every minute he has now.

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“It’s over. It’s over. I appreciate the support. I appreciate everyone that has come out and supported me,” Long said. “No one will ever, never, ever, ever lock me up again…I’m trying to enjoy every minute of it. Every minute I get of it.”

Long says he plans to go see his nieces, nephews, great-nieces and nephews. Family says he also has a grandchild on the way.

The state must also decided if they will dismiss charges or retry him by Sept. 25, but Long’s lawyer says he is certain the court will not re-try him.

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