COVID-19 threatens inmate who says he was wrongfully convicted of rape 44 years ago

COVID-19 threatens inmate who says he was wrongfully convicted of rape 44 years ago

CHARLOTTE — There are growing calls to release Ronnie Long, who has been incarcerated at the Albemarle Correctional Institute for 44 years.

Long said he is scared for his life now more than ever.

“I done fought to stay alive all this time here, and now I’m facing something that can take me out in the blink of an eye,” Long said, referring to the spread of COVID-19 inside the facility.

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Long was 19 years old when he was accused of breaking into a home and raping a 54-year-old woman.

He was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to 80 years behind bars.

FILE-Ronnie Long
FILE-Ronnie Long

There were riots after the verdict.

Long and his supporters have maintained his innocence, and as years went by, key pieces of the case began to unravel.

A Concord police detective lied on the stand during Long's trial.

“Officers lied repeatedly during his trial,” Long’s attorney, Jamie Lau said. “Evidence that would have undercut the arguments made by the state was hid from Long during the course of his trial, and that evidence also pointed toward someone else as the assailant.”

Lau works with Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic and said the Department of Public Safety has taken safety measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

He pointed out that a rape test kit vanished after Concord police investigators received it from the hospital, and suspect hair samples, along with other pieces of physical evidence, didn’t match Long’s. 

In 2005, new evidence surfaced, which the state had the entire time.

“You keep saying you got the right person,” Long said. “How you got the right person when you got evidence, suspect hair, fingerprints, footprints, carpet fibers?”

There were 43 fingerprints, and none matched Long’s.

“How can in the world can a person’s word supersede scientific evidence?” he said.

The federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard that argument in May, and it is currently deciding on the case.

But Long and his attorney are worried the decision might come too late.

“My fear is it’s only a matter of time before Ronnie tests positive himself,” Lau said.

He doesn’t think it’s enough to protect his client.

“There’s approximately 40 incarcerated people who are in a single space with bunk beds that are not 6 feet apart,” Lau said.

Long said he has access to another kind of sanitizer once or twice a day but has resorted to washing his hands with diluted bleach.

“I got me some diluted bleach,” Long said. “I wash my hands with bleach.”

Lau requested that Gov. Roy Cooper commutes Long’s sentence.

“Subjecting Mr. Long to the heightened risk of a COVID-19 infection after 44 years of incarceration serves no rational penological purpose and is wholly unnecessary to protect public safety,” Lau said. “It is clear that you have the authority to take this extraordinary step.”

Sixteen members of the North Carolina General Assembly, who support Long’s freedom, also sent Cooper a letter.

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Concord's former mayor, Scott Padgett, said he's been thinking about Long's case.

“You’ve gotta consider this man has been in prison for 44 years,” Padgett said. “He was a young man when he was convicted.”

Padgett recalled the role he played in possibly keeping Long behind bars.

“The district attorney approached me about composing or signing the letter that would be against his parole,” Padgett said.

He says he signed the letter twice over the course of his term, even though he didn’t know the details of Long’s case.

“No, I wasn’t that familiar with the case,” Padgett said. “I guess I felt like I presume most people feel that a person’s been convicted and is serving time there, was probably legitimate reason all that happened.”

He said he probably would not sign the same letter now.

“There seems to be more reasonable doubt, more questions, lots of questions that need answers,” Padgett said.

Channel 9 contacted Cooper’s office and Cabarrus County District Attorney Roxann Vaneekhoven but have not heard back from them.

For details on Ronnie’s case and appeal, visit www.freeronnielongnow.org or “Free Ronnie Long” on Facebook.