The morning of August 18, 2014, greeted Ashleigh Ward with a blast of sticky summer heat. She was excited. She was getting married. Nobody she knew approved of the wedding, but she didn't care.
She slipped into a white sundress with navy stripes—$3.49 from Goodwill—and shiny black peep-toe heels. Her long, bright blonde hair fell around her shoulders. She dabbed her lips with light pink gloss.
Then she drove herself to the wedding venue, some forty-five minutes from her home outside Chapel Hill. Inside, the man she would marry was waiting in a cream-colored button-down and freshly pressed khakis.
Ward pulled up to her destination, on East McNeill Street in Lillington, and waited under a carport. She tried not to sweat. A woman came to retrieve her, guiding her into the chapel, where the chaplain and her fiancé awaited. Neither of them had family members or friends there, but she noticed a few spectators wander over to watch the ceremony, lingering as the two read their vows.
Their interest was understandable. After all, it was an unlikely setting for an unlikely wedding: twenty-nine-year-old Ashleigh Ward and fifty-nine-year-old Ronnie Long, North Carolina Department of Correction inmate 0247905.
Ashleigh stamped that number as close to her heart as she could get it—under her left breast. She did it, she says, because she fell in love with Long when he was "just a number to the state." Just above that, scrawled across her chest in cursive, she tattooed the three words that changed her life: "Free Ronnie Long."
Her husband is serving two life sentences for a crime he says he didn't commit, and he has been for decades. On October 1, 1976, Long was convicted of raping a wealthy woman in Concord. He was twenty-one, black, and the son of a concrete contractor. The victim, fifty-four, was white and the well-heeled widow of a former executive at Cannon Mills, a major employer in the area. (She has since died.)
The trial roiled an already polarized city in a racially tense era. In an affidavit, Long's former attorney recalled a courtroom split by race, with blacks on one side and whites on the other.
When the guilty verdict was read, Long's mother, Elizabeth, fainted. A riot nearly broke out in the courthouse; police carrying mace and nightsticks cleared the room. "Klan-style justice struck again on the night of October 1," declared a flyer distributed after the verdict.
The prosecution's case rested primarily on the victim's eyewitness identification of Long. During the trial, she expressed absolute certainty that he'd assaulted her.
"I'll never forget it as long as I live," she told the court.
But Long has always maintained his innocence, and his supporters say his trial was a sham. They point out that the victim's first identification of Long was highly unusual and didn't involve a typical lineup. Then, prior to the trial, the Cabarrus County sheriff personally vetted the jury pool, according to court records, striking the names of jurors he believed to be unqualified with a red pen. The resulting jury was all-white. Three of the jurors were employed by Cannon Mills, and a fourth was married to someone who worked there.
Decades after the trial, Long's attorneys learned that physical evidence was withheld from his defense team; that evidence—including a list of items from the crime scene sent to the State Bureau of Investigation for testing, none of which produced a match to Long—is exculpatory, they say.
In an interview, Long calls the conviction a "modernized lynching, sanctioned by law." His sister, Lynda, calls it "cold-blooded." His mother, now eighty-six, says thinking about it drives her crazy. She prays for her son every night and hopes she'll live long enough to see his release.
That could still happen.
Throughout the 15,118 days since his conviction (as of publication), state courts have denied Long's appeals, arguing that the withheld evidence wouldn't have changed the trial's outcome. But lately, there's been movement in his favor.
In 2016, Long's legal team filed a habeas corpus petition with the Middle District Court of North Carolina, asking the court to vacate Long's conviction or grant him a new trial on the grounds that the state violated Long's constitutional rights. The court dismissed that petition in 2017, but Long's attorneys appealed. In October, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal and sent the petition back to the district court. The district court judge, Catherine Eagles, could dismiss the petition again, but she could also vacate the conviction or order a new hearing.
The possibility of a new outcome looms over Long's family. His mother hopes the court will grant him a reprieve this time around.
"But you never know," she says. "He's been in there so long. My husband died; he thought he was gonna live to see him get out. That's all he wanted. He said every day, 'I want to live to see Ronnie get out of there.'"
Long lingers in the visitation center of the Albemarle Correctional Institution on a cool afternoon in December. He's in khakis, white sneakers, and a beige button-down shirt. His head is shaved smooth, and he wears glasses. His baritone voice has a gravelly edge.
It's just before Christmas, and the harshly lit visitation center is decorated appropriately. Long, grim-faced, stands under a banner tacked onto the room's white walls. "Tis the season for joy," it reads, in green block letters. He clasps a manila envelope filled with legal files and asks about the drive to Albemarle, about two hours southwest of Raleigh, where he's been locked up for the past year. He moves into a boxy interview room nearby, places his folder on the desk, and settles into a chair.
Before everything changed four decades ago, Long says, he had a fairly typical life. He was born in Charlotte but grew up in Concord with his seven brothers and sisters. His father was a member of the Freemasons and a concrete contractor. In school, Long followed in his footsteps, taking masonry courses and learning how to set stone. He also played sports—basketball, baseball, and football—at Concord City High School.
"I was just your average teenager," he says.
Even so, Long knew there were places he couldn't go. The city was segregated, he says. "They let you know you can't come this way. You can't live up here, you can't come this far."
Long, who grew up in a politically minded household, was keenly aware of this reality. His dad, he says, was the vice president of an organization called the Southern Conference Educational Fund. He recalls standing in front of mills as a kid, passing out leaflets urging workers to unionize. Occasionally, his political consciousness got the best of him. He describes an encounter with two white police officers when he was about nineteen. They stopped him while he was walking through a predominantly white neighborhood and asked why he was out.
"Why am I out?" he replied. "Isn't this America? I don't have the right to be on this sidewalk?" The officers handcuffed him and hauled him downtown.
These racial dynamics form a key part of Long's conviction, his supporters argue. His case, they say, cannot be understood without staring into the ugliest parts of North Carolina's past.
One of those supporters is Joel Harlow, a self-described conservative who stumbled upon Long's case one day while commenting on a Facebook post and grew to become one of his strongest advocates.
"I am an East Texas conservative, beer drinking, gun loving, banker, rancher, cattleman that is so right-wing I make Ted Cruz look like Bernie Sanders," he told the INDY in an email. He added in all caps: "If I, with all the built-in biases that I have because of my background, can see his innocence, why can no one else?"
Harlow doesn't hesitate to ascribe racism to Long's plight.
"I'll put it this way," he says. "If this would have happened five years earlier, he wouldn't have had a trial. He would have been hanging from a tree."
As told in police reports and trial transcripts, the rape took place on Sunday, April 25, 1976, around 9:45 p.m. Earlier, the victim had gone to church and the post office. She spent the evening sewing, making phone calls, and getting ready to go to the beach with friends the following day. Around 9:30, she took out hamburger meat to defrost and put broccoli on the stove; when it was ready, she made her way from the kitchen to the den. Then she felt someone grab her from behind.
"Shut your damn mouth!" the man hissed. He threw her to the floor.
The victim told police the assailant tore off her clothes, pressed a knife to her throat, and threatened to kill her. He told her he had only fifteen minutes and his friends were waiting for him outside.
Then he raped her.
Whenever she tried to move, he slammed her head on the ground. At trial, she testified that she was panicked during the attack—"so frightened" she "couldn't stand it."
The phone rang, startling the attacker. He gathered his things and left through the front door. The victim fled. Her neighbor heard a loud beating on her back door and saw the victim standing there, naked.
The neighbor's husband called the police; they arrived at about ten. According to the initial incident report, the victim said she'd been attacked by a black man wearing a leather jacket, a beanie, and possibly gloves. She described him as having slim hips, a slender build, and an occasionally soft-spoken voice. She elaborated on her attacker's appearance during the trial, telling the court he had a complexion that was "yellow-looking" and "just not totally black. Not like, you know, a blue-black, black man." (Long and his supporters point out that he has a dark complexion.)
The victim was rushed to the emergency room of the Cabarrus Memorial Hospital. There, she was examined by a doctor who, according to medical records, followed existing rape protocols and collected biological evidence, including pubic hair and fluids.
With the victim in the hospital, police officers investigated the crime scene. Van Isenhour, a detective with the Concord Police Department, arrived at the victim's home around 10:30, according to his testimony. He photographed the house and began collecting evidence. He searched for fingerprints and, the following morning, lifted a latent shoeprint from a column near the porch, which the attacker had presumably climbed to break into the house. Isenhour also collected latent fingerprints, carpet samples, suspect hair, and paint samples, as well as pieces of the victim's clothing and partially burned matches, and later brought them to the SBI office in Raleigh for examination.
At the hospital, Sergeant David Taylor presented the victim with a photographic lineup of thirteen possible suspects; they were all black men, age twenty to thirty. Long was not among them, and the victim couldn't identify anyone from the photo array. Ten days later, Taylor and Lieutenant George Vogler stopped by the victim's house and asked her to come with them to the district court on the morning of May 10. They wanted her to observe everyone in the courtroom in case her assailant was there.
"She was told that the person who committed the offense could or could not be in court on that day, and that she was not going to court for the specific reason of picking out a person that was in the courtroom," Taylor testified.
They told the victim to wear a disguise. So, five days later—and fifteen days after the crime—when the officers picked her up and brought her to court, she had on a blue pantsuit, a red wig, and glasses.
The victim's neighbor accompanied her. The two sat in the left side of gallery, as the officers surveyed them from the jury box. Long was seated in the middle of the gallery. He was in court to resolve a misdemeanor charge for trespassing in a public park, which he received after a judge suspended him from the area for getting into a scuffle.
The victim later recalled about thirty-five to fifty people in the courtroom, and about a dozen African Americans. She waited there, alert, for more than an hour. Finally, the judge called Long to come forward. The victim alerted her neighbor: "That's the one," she whispered.
After she identified Long, the officers asked her about her level of confidence. "There is no doubt in my mind," she told them. "Absolutely no doubt."
They brought her to the police station, where they once again showed her a photo lineup of suspects. Long was in this one, and she selected his photo. Asked at the trial if anything distinctive about the suspect's clothing grabbed her attention, she noted Long's coat.
"It was the jacket," she said, referring to Long, who was the only person in the lineup wearing a leather coat. "It was the identical, one identical to it. It was a leather jacket."
During the trial, the victim demurred when the judge asked her if it was possible that the officers asked her to pick Long. "They could have," she replied, "but I don't know, I don't remember finding out, even finding out that when, what his name was really."
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- Ronnie Long, inmate 0247905
This method of identification is highly concerning to criminal justice and misidentification experts. They point out that the victim, in the courtroom with her possible assailant, was placed in a stressful and potentially retraumatizing environment, and that by the time she identified Long, more than two weeks had passed since the attack. Moreover, eyewitness identifications across racial lines—for example, a white woman identifying a black man—are particularly prone to error.
Jennifer Soble, a senior attorney for Harvard's Fair Punishment Project, which advocates for criminal justice reform, says the identification was "plainly illegal." Soble points to the police officers' suggestion that the assailant could be in the courtroom, which could signal the victim that they already have a suspect in mind or have insider knowledge about the case.
"Identification procedures should never reveal which individual, if anyone, law enforcement already suspects," she says. "Because when the law enforcement agent suggests that a particular person is a suspect, that suggestion can subconsciously direct the witness toward that suspect, even if the witness would never have picked that person using a proper identification procedure."
Karen Newirth, a staff attorney at the Innocence Project, agrees that Long's identification was improper. She adds that the leather jacket Long was wearing when he was identified was significant and could have subconsciously influenced the victim.
"What we know about how memory works and how people make identifications is, this isn't happening on a conscious level," Newirth says. "It's happening on an unconscious level. The social-science researchers would say the only procedure that has any forensic value to tell us something about the likelihood that the suspect is in fact the person who committed the crime is the first procedure, and the first procedure should be a nonsuggestive procedure. He was not in the first photo lineup."
When Long was in the courthouse, he had no idea he was a suspect in a rape case. After his misdemeanor charge was dismissed, he drove to his home in Concord, where he lived with his parents.
A few hours later, Taylor and Officer Marshall Lee came knocking. Long was taken into state custody that evening. He would never go home again.
Officers Lee, Taylor, and Ludwig stopped by Long's home on May 10, 1976, the day the victim identified him. From there, the accounts of Long and the police officers begin to diverge.
At trial, Long testified that the officers told him he needed to return to the station to straighten out the trespassing charge. Taylor, meanwhile, testified that Long wasn't given a reason; instead, they just asked him to "come by" the police department, and Long agreed.
While they were talking, Long testified, his father approached the officers, asking if he needed to accompany his son to the station or provide him with an attorney. The officers, according to Long and his father, told him he did not. "They say it'll only take about ten or fifteen minutes," his father testified. "He'll be right back."
Long hadn't been told that he was suspected of rape.
That came soon after, though. Long arrived at the police station at about 6:45 p.m. There, he was read his rights and told he was a suspect. Long says he was stunned.
Here again, the stories take separate paths. The officers said they asked Long for consent to search his mom's car, which he drove to the station. They later acknowledged that they did not obtain a search warrant but said they did not need one, as Long agreed to the search. Long, meanwhile, testified that Vogler asked him to empty his pockets on the table, took his car keys without providing an explanation, and then went downstairs. Long said they never asked permission to search the car, nor did he give it.
Either way, the police searched Long's car. There, they testified, they found a pair of gloves in the sun visor, matchbooks, and a beanie in the front seat. Long admits that the gloves were his, but he's always said that the beanie wasn't—and that it wasn't in the car. During the trial, several witnesses, including Long's dad, said they'd never seen the hat on Long.
After searching the car, the officers took Long to the office of the magistrate, who drew up warrants for his arrest. Even then, Long says, he wasn't truly aware of how serious things had become.
"Ain't no way in the world they could do this to me!" he thought.
He would soon find out how wrong he was.
At trial, Long's defense rested on his alibi. His attorneys called several witnesses who testified that they'd seen him on the day of the assault.
Long's then-girlfriend—and the mother of his two-year-old child—said that he called her just after 9 p.m. and spoke to her for about forty-five minutes, ending the call at about 9:45, the time the victim said the attack took place.
Long's mother also recalled interacting with him during that time frame. She told the court that Long came home at about 8:30, then went upstairs to his room. Just after nine, she said, Long, who was on the phone with his girlfriend, said his son was on the phone. Long's mother picked up and talked to her grandson for about five or ten minutes; when she hung up, she testified, Long stayed on the line. He came downstairs at about 10:25 and told her he was on his way to a party in Charlotte. She told the court that there was no way anyone could have gotten out of the windows in Long's room; she also said she would have seen him if he'd come downstairs before she saw him at 10:30.
Hospital records indicated that the victim fought off her attacker—even bending back her fingernails while trying to scratch him—but witnesses testified that Long was unscathed when they saw him later that night, saying they saw no scratches, bruises, or blood on his body.
In his closing argument, the prosecutor referred to the footprint left at the crime scene. Whoever it belonged to, he said, was responsible for the attack. But he admitted that the shoes that made the mark couldn't definitively be tied to Long. During the trial, an SBI officer who examined the footprints testified that he couldn't say for certain that Long's shoes made the prints—just that they "could have."
Nevertheless, the prosecutor argued that if "we had simply presented to you the testimony of [the victim] and [the victim] alone, with no other evidence whatsoever, that would have been sufficient for you to consider this matter directly on the charges as they are now up here."
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- Long talks to Ashleigh inside the Albemarle Correctional Institution
The jury agreed. On October 1, 1976, Long was convicted and sentenced to two concurrent life sentences. When the guilty verdict was read, pandemonium broke out in the courtroom. "Whites cheered; blacks jeered and cried in outrage," his former defense attorney, James Fuller, later testified.
Later that night, Long rode with two white sheriff's deputies to Raleigh's Central Prison. He sat in the car, heavily restrained, as Daryl Hall's "She's Gone" played softly on the radio. He thought about the woman he was dating and his uncertain life ahead. He gazed out the window and wondered, Man, what have I gotten myself into?
As the car inched toward the prison, Long took in his surroundings. He felt like he was looking at an odd, twisted castle out of a Frankenstein movie—"old walls with these big old stones, church windows with the bars and pigeons flying in and out."
One of the deputies, Long remembers, told him to look to his left at his new home. "He said, 'Nigga, you won't be back. You think you tough? They gonna show you what tough is behind these walls.'"
After Long's conviction, Concord bubbled over with fury. The next day, hundreds of protesters descended on the city's downtown, staging a demonstration in front of the courthouse. For days, fifty police officers in full riot gear stationed themselves at a nearby park. The police chief warned protesters that violence would be met with force.
Long's case garnered widespread attention even before the verdict. Two months before his sentencing, three hundred people rallied in support of Long in front of the courthouse. A handful of speakers denounced his arrest. "We're gonna let them rich folks that run this town know they're gonna free Ronnie Long," one declared. "We're gonna let this Klansman judge get an idea. ... We're gonna start dealing with all these racists."
According to newspaper clippings and other documents, the all-white jury was a major point of contention.
"Long's story was over before the judge entered the courtroom," reads a "Free Ronnie Long" flyer distributed by the Southern Conference Educational Fund. "Of the forty-nine people summoned for jury duty, only four were Black. Defense challenges against the jury pool, admittedly selected by the sheriff who arbitrarily removed all 'undesirables' from the jury list, were rejected by the judge. The handful of Blacks were dismissed and an all-white jury selected, half of them associated with Cannon Mills. Was this a jury of Ronnie's peers?"
Meanwhile, Long, in prison, assumed he'd be out in a matter of years—five, perhaps, until he proved his innocence. But five years bled into ten, ten to fifteen, fifteen to twenty. Long spent his twenties in prison, his thirties, his forties, his fifties, now his sixties. During that time, his grandmother, two sisters, and father all passed away. His mother says she's "just waiting on Ronnie to get out. God let me live to see him get out of there."
For years, Long filed appeals and argued his innocence, to no avail. But his case got a boost in 2005, after the UNC Innocence Project took up his defense and filed a motion to preserve evidence in Cabarrus County Superior Court. The court ordered the district attorney's office, as well as the SBI and Concord Police Department, to find and preserve physical evidence in the case and hand over all related test results and reports to the defense. The court also ordered NorthEast Medical Center—formerly Cabarrus Memorial Hospital, where the victim was examined—to turn over biological evidence.
The police department located a file from Detective Isenhour that contained a list of items he collected from the crime scene and then brought to the SBI. The SBI located a file with the test results. None of the items taken from the crime scene showed a match to Long. For example, the SBI compared a sample of Long's hair to a hair found at the crime scene. They didn't match. The leather jacket, gloves, and beanie were tested for paint and carpet fibers. No dice. A comparison of matches found at the crime scene to matchbooks taken from Long's car didn't turn up anything, either.
The existence of that SBI file was never disclosed to Long's defense attorneys before his trial. Indeed, when Isenhour took the stand and was asked about the items he brought to the SBI, he said he had only taken Long's shoes and shoe impressions.
Moreover, the defense was never told about the existence of a rape kit that the police department obtained. It, too, never came up at trial—and now it's nowhere to be found. The NorthEast Medical Center told the court that the hospital did not have any remaining evidence and that it had turned everything over to the Concord police in 1976. In 2007, Long's attorneys filed another motion to preserve evidence, this time to UNC Hospitals, which at the time of the crime conducted blood tests. In response, the attorneys learned that the system had no records in Long's or the victim's name.
"I think the test results on the jacket would have been absolute dynamite for a trial attorney who knew what he or she was doing back in 1976," said one of Long's attorneys at a 2008 hearing. "And in fact it probably, it could well have been the most critical piece of evidence in the case, because without the test we tried to argue, and it's hard to argue when you don't have the test result."
A private investigator who worked with Long's defense team said he was "stunned" to learn that nearly all of the physical evidence in the case had been sent to the SBI for testing, and the results linked none of it to Long.
At that hearing, the original prosecutor did something unusual: he testified for the defense, saying he had no recollection of seeing Isenhour's or the SBI's reports. If he'd seen them, he said, he would have turned them over to the defense. He also said he did not know about the swabs or samples taken from the victim at the hospital, and if he had known about them, he would have sought further testing.
That wasn't all that came to light. In 2015, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency that investigates inmates' innocence claims, found latent fingerprints collected from the crime scene by the Concord police. According to a May 12, 1976, report by Isenhour, nearly seventy fingerprints had been collected from the crime scene and repeatedly checked against suspects. But the cops weren't able to find a match.
The commission asked the Concord police to run the fingerprint lifts through a fingerprint identification system. In 2015, the police department issued a one-page report concluding that the search returned "no possible contributors." (The police department's report did not provide any information about the scope of the database—whether it was local, statewide, or national.) In response, Long asked for the commission's file on the case, but the district attorney's office objected, and the commission declined to provide the file.
When Long found out about the new evidence, he was floored.
"I wish I had known this in seventy-six," he says. "Lawd, I wish I had known this in seventy-six."
Despite this new evidence, Long's case didn't make much headway in the courts. His earlier appeals, which argued that his lawyers' failure to challenge the jury-selection process constituted ineffective counsel, went nowhere. After obtaining new evidence in 2005, Long tried to get a new trial, but the Cabarrus County Superior Court ruled that the new items wouldn't have changed the jury's mind.
Long's defense team appealed to the N.C. Supreme Court. In 2011, the court deadlocked 3–3 on a decision to reverse the superior court's ruling. The split affirmed the status quo, and the lower court's order remained in place.
That's when Long's case moved to federal court. In 2016, his lawyers filed a habeas petition with the Middle District Court of North Carolina. But the court dismissed the case on the basis that Long had not litigated the new fingerprint evidence in state court. Long's team appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court, and in October, the court agreed with Long, sending the petition back to the district court, where it is today.
Long's attorneys are asking to have his conviction vacated, but they're aware that anything could happen—including another dismissal, which they would then appeal again. As for Long, he says his hopes are simple: he just wants the judge ruling on the petition to "apply the law."
"If she applies the law, then I'll walk up out of here," he says. "Why am I still behind these bars? What have I got to do to prove that I'm not the man that y'all are looking for? I'm tired. Forty-two years. I mean, what do you want from me? What do you want?"
A few years ago, Long's personal life took an unexpected turn. In 2013, he received a letter from a stranger. Long opened the envelope, sent from a woman named Ashleigh Ward, and began reading the note, dated July 28. She'd come across his case, she wrote, and wanted to help.
Ashleigh, now a petite thirty-two-year-old living in Durham, was studying criminal justice and criminology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (she later dropped out to pursue Long's case full-time). She included her phone number in case he was willing to talk.
When she mentioned that she was white, Long paused. He wondered if he should even bother.
But Long sent her a letter, and the two struck up a correspondence. Their first phone call was quick. Ashleigh found him fun to talk to. She insisted on helping him, whether he agreed to it or not.
Ashleigh says she felt his innocence deep in her gut.
"That's all it's ever been. The guy didn't do it," she says. "Even when he drives me nuts, it's like, 'free Ronnie Long.'"
The couple's first in-person visit came about two months after she dropped the letter in the mail: October 3, 2013. Ashleigh drove three hours from Concord, where she was living, to the Harnett Correctional Institution in Lillington. They took a photo of the visit. His expression is haunting: no smile, and a stare that cuts straight into the camera.
They kept up their correspondence, and Ashleigh, a few months later, realized she was developing feelings for Long. It dawned on her on a Saturday afternoon in the winter. She was in a McDonald's, using the free wi-fi to work on Long's case, and her phone rang: it was him on the other line.
"I think I'm falling in love with you and it's weird!" she blurted out. Long laughed. "I'm like, the old man had some game, I guess," she says.
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- Ronnie and Ashleigh Long
She suggested they get married. Long was hesitant. Nobody supported the idea—not their families or Long's attorneys. But they decided to do it anyway.
They submitted a request to Harnett, which then selected a wedding date for them: August 18, 2014.
The ceremony was at 10:30 a.m. They needed two witnesses; Ashleigh's friends couldn't make it, so they used an inmate and his counselor. The couple read their vows and kissed. Then Long surprised her with their song: "If You Know Like I Know," by Teddy Pendergrass.
The next day, Ashleigh Ward became Ashleigh Long.
Joel Harlow, the Texan, has a plan for when Long gets out. He's going to hop on a plane to North Carolina and treat him to a steak and a beer. And then, if Long agrees, the two will fly back to Texas. Harlow's eighty-four-year-old father, who writes and calls Long in prison regularly, will introduce himself. The three will go to church together.
For Long to get that steak and beer, though, the chips have to fall just right. The courts have to decide that all of the evidence amassed since 2005 entitles him to a new hearing, even though, for a decade, they've been unwilling to do that.
If Long is one day exonerated, he'll join an ever-growing club. According to data from the University of Michigan's National Registry of Exonerations, 2,155 people have been wrongfully convicted and later exonerated since 1989, adding up to a total of 18,881 years lost. In North Carolina, sixty people have been exonerated during that time.
Taken across racial lines, the data is starker. African Americans comprise about 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for nearly 50 percent of all wrongful convictions. An African American behind bars for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual-assault convict, according to the registry.
In half of all sexual-assault exonerations due to eyewitness misidentification, black men were convicted of raping white women. In a 2017 report, the registry concluded that the major cause of this disparity boils down to white victims misidentifying black defendants: "One of the oldest and most consistent findings of systematic studies of eyewitness identification is that white Americans are much more likely to mistake one black person for another than to mistakenly identify members of their own race."
It's happened before in North Carolina. In 1984, a man broke into the apartment of a twenty-two-year-old college student, Jennifer Thompson, and sexually assaulted her. Thompson later picked Ronald Cotton, a black man, as her attacker in a photo and in-person lineup. Cotton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. A decade later, however, DNA evidence cleared him; testing revealed that a different man, Bobby Poole, had committed the assault.
Thompson apologized to Cotton after he was exonerated, and the two eventually became friends, even traveling the country together to raise awareness about the pitfalls of eyewitness identifications.
When she identified Cotton, Thompson was certain she'd gotten it right. The mind, she says, is a powerful thing. It can convince itself of false memories.
"For most of us crime survivors, who pick somebody out of a lineup and then are given confirmation, you can never regain your original memory," she says. "It's just gone. It's wiped out of your memory bank. Every rape survivor I've talked to, when it's led to a wrongful conviction, they will tell you that they can't get the face of the wrongfully accused person out of their head. It was years after Ronald was exonerated, I couldn't untangle Ronald's face from my nightmare. I knew he was innocent, but I had no memory of Bobby Poole. You can't do it. It's now a completely new memory."
Thompson adds: "As it relates to Ronnie, it's time for the system to do the right thing."
Today, Long is still inmate 0247905. His mother is still alive. Ashleigh still visits him every week. Harlow and his father are still waiting to take him to church in Texas.
Long says he's about to run out of energy, but he's not done yet.
"You got to be strong," he says. "You got to be strong in order to come through here. Because if you fail, then they done defeated you. Your best weapon is to come through this."
There's one vexing question that permeates this story: How did the police zero in on Ronnie Long in the first place? After all, they seem to have had someone in mind when they asked the victim to come to the courthouse and see if she spotted her rapist. If that someone was Long—if it wasn't a coincidence that he happened to be there when the victim was—then why did police have their eyes on him?
That question goes unanswered in the legal documents. But there is a plausible explanation. It never came up in Long's trial and only emerged years later as a filing from the DA's office.
In July 1975, Long's social security card was found at the scene of a rape in Washington, D.C. Long says his wallet was stolen several days before the incident. He wasn't indicted because he wasn't identified by the victim and two witnesses.
The Concord Police Department had records of this incident because the D.C. police had contacted the local cops for a photo of Long when his social security card was retrieved.
It's possible, then, that when detectives were trying to find their rapist, they recalled this incident. Jamie Lau, Long's attorney with the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, says that Long "likely became a suspect in Concord because of an earlier, unrelated investigation in D.C., where he was ultimately cleared as the perpetrator."