By Victoria Lembesis
In honor of Wrongful Convictions Day, Duke Law Professor Jamie Lau and Wrongful Convictions Client Ronnie Long webinar this week discussed Long’s landmark case, and how Duke Law is targeting systemic injustice through its Innocence Project Wrongful Conviction Clinic.
A 20-year-old Ronnie Long was wrongfully convicted of rape and burglary charges in North Carolina in 1976. After 44 years in prison, Long is finally able to walk free.
Professor Jamie Lau, the lawyer who worked to prove Long’s innocence, recounted the details of his case:
- North Carolina police responded to a rape scene on April 25, 1976. The only reason the police decided to detain Long was because he was in a nearby park in a black coat, an article of clothing that the victim noted her attacker was wearing.
- When the victim was asked to I.D. the attacker, Lau noted that, instead of showing her photos of potential suspects, police took the victim into a courtroom with potential suspects and asked her to identify her attacker.
- She was in the courtroom for over an hour and still did not identify Long as her attacker. She later identified Long as her attacker only because she felt pressure to identify someone quickly. The victim stated that she only chose Long because he was the only one that looked remotely similar to her attacker.
- Lau said Long was tried by an all-white jury, which was not at all an accident. Lau also noted that the prosecutor on the case did not have all of the information on the case.
- Police knowingly suppressed key evidence in the case including 42 fingerprints found on the crime scene and on the victim that did not match Long’s DNA.
- The North Carolina crime lab in the case reviewed all physical evidence and could not find a single piece of physical evidence connecting Long to the crime scene. Lau also noted that nearly every piece of evidence tested was not probative.
None of this evidence was shared with the defense during his 1976 trial.
Ronnie Long was given back his freedom in August 2020 and reflected on his first month of freedom in the seminar.
He noted of his 44 years in prison, “What I have experienced is something I would never want to put another man through, unless he deserved to be put behind these fences.”
Long shared that he cherishes the freedom he now has and in the past month he has celebrated his birthday for the first time since going to prison, voted for the first time, had his first Häagen-Dazs ice cream, and has spent much needed quality time with his wife Ashleigh.
He expressed his gratitude for all that Jamie Lau and the Wrongful Convictions Clinic have done, stating, “Once there was a time in my life when all of this, me sitting on a deck, watching the sunrise, being able to eat what I want for breakfast, get in the car and move and go where I want one time—it was unimaginable.”
Lau and Long ended the seminar reiterating the importance of criminal justice reform and expressing that, though Long was able to regain his much deserved freedom, the fight against systemic injustice is not over.
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