In 1976, Ronnie Long of Concord, North Carolina, was accused of raping a 54-year-old White woman after she reported that an unknown assailant had attacked her in her home and then fled.
Long received a life sentence. On Thursday, he was finally released from prison after his conviction was vacated by the state of North Carolina.
“It’s been a long road,” Long said in front of reporters following his release, according to CNN. “But it’s over with. It’s over with now.”
U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote that since Long had been convicted a “trickle of post-trial disclosures has unearthed a troubling and striking pattern of deliberate police suppression of material evidence,” which prompted the state’s request. The evidence in question—including semen samples and fingerprints from the crime scene that did not match Long’s—was revealed be deliberately withheld by law enforcement.
Then there was the small matter of who tried him. “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,” Judge James Wynn of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals also wrote in the request.
“Because of the deceit that occurred at trial, Ronnie and his counsel at the time didn’t have the benefit of that evidence to present to the jury,” Jamie Lau, Long’s attorney and a law professor at Duke University, told CNN. (Lau also serves as the faculty adviser for the Duke Law Innocence Project, which helps people like Long.) “So he’s been wrongly incarcerated for 44 years.”
“I’m 64, going on 65. They took my life away from me when I was 20 years old,” Long told CBS News.“I ain’t got nothing but memories. But yet, and still, you say the evidence collected in the case was immaterial?”