CONCORD, N.C. — Gov. Roy Cooper granted pardons Thursday for five men convicted of crimes they did not commit, including Ronnie Long of Concord.
Long went to prison in 1976 convicted of a rape he said he did not commit. He spent the following decades fighting for his release, a battle which ended in August when the state of North Carolina vacated his conviction and dropped all the charges.
He’s been fighting for a pardon from the governor since his release.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Long told Channel 9 anchor Allison Latos after receiving news of the pardon.
“I’m glad the governor came to the realization and recognized it was the proper thing to do,” he said.
Long said getting the pardon was a huge obstacle to overcome in his fight for a new life.
“It’s the first hurdle in a struggle, a fight. It ain’t over with,” he said.
The pardon means Long could be eligible for up to $750,000 in compensation from the state for the time he spent in prison.
He said he’s meeting with his attorney soon about his push for compensation. But at the moment, Long said he’s focusing on letting the news sink in and appreciating simple freedoms he once dreamed of, such as a road trip with his wife Ashleigh and being home for the holidays.
“Right now, I’m enjoying the sunshine. I’m enjoying my first Christmas after 44 years of incarceration,” he said.
The pardon applications for Long and the others were thoroughly reviewed by the Office of Executive Clemency, the Office of the General Counsel and the governor, according to a release.
“We must continue to work to reform our justice system and acknowledge when people have been wrongly convicted. I have carefully reviewed the facts in each of these cases and, while I cannot give these men back the time they served, I am granting them Pardons of Innocence in the hope that they might be better able to move forward in their lives,” said Cooper.
Kristie Puckett-Williams, statewide manager of the ACLU of North Carolina Campaign for Smart Justice released this statement:
“We applaud the Governor’s actions granting pardons of innocence to Ronnie Long and four other people who were convicted of crimes that they did not commit. In Mr. Long’s case, he lost 44 years that he can never get back. It is impossible to fully right that wrong, but today’s pardon will help those pardoned move forward with their lives.
“However, more can and must be done by Governor Cooper. The people of North Carolina are looking for leadership in dismantling the racist criminal legal system, a system that he has played a role in creating during the past three decades that he has held elected office.
“With more than 30,000 people currently incarcerated in state prisons, we urge the Governor to use his executive powers further to allow redemption for those who deserve another chance and to redeem a system that continues to have a disparate impact on people of color. We have every hope that Governor Cooper will recognize the responsibility and power he has to address the inequities found in our state’s criminal legal system and take further action to decarcerate North Carolina.”