RALEIGH (WTVD) -- A North Carolina man wrongly imprisoned for 44 years is finally free.
Ronnie Long of Concord was convicted by an all-white jury in 1976 for the brutal rape of a 54-year-old widow. Decades later, and after many appeals, a judge finally allowed Long's attorneys to review biological evidence from the scene. That evidence supported Long's profession of innocence.
On Thursday, Long emerged from prison wearing a three-piece suit. His family and supporters were there to greet him.
"That was my inspiration," Long told ABC affiliate WSOC after his release. "I got my inspiration from them and, God, it felt good because I was getting feedback that I was loved and supported."
Long's release came on a special day for his wife, Ashleigh. It was her birthday.
"The best birthday present in the world," she said. "I still think I'm dreaming."
The couple met when she was a criminal justice student at the University of North Carolina. They married in 2014.
Long said the justice system failed him, but he never gave up hope that the truth would win out.
"I'm disappointed, really, in a system that is supposed to be about right and wrong," Long said. "One day, I (believed I would) be standing where I'm standing right now, and I ain't never gave up that hope."
His message to others was simply: "Never give up."
There was one person notably absent from the family reunion. Long's mother passed away just a month earlier.
"I wanted her to be a part of this," Long said. "I hated that she's not here. Hopefully, she's watching down on me. She can tell my dad and my sisters that I made it out."
April 25, 1976
The call came in around 9:30 p.m. reporting a forced entry at the home of 54-year-old Sarah Bost in Concord, a suburb of Charlotte.
According to court documents, "a man entered the home" and "put a knife to her throat." When Bost was unable to give the intruder any money, the man "became angry, cursed her, threw her to the ground, ripped her clothes off, beat her, and raped her."
The man would then escape, leaving Bost unclothed, but she still ran to her neighbor's house and "told her neighbor an African-American man had just raped her."
Concord Police Department led the investigation, which included a full search of the house and, of course, a debrief and interview with Mrs. Bost, who gave a detailed description of what she perceived as her attacker's height, build, facial hair and clothing.
Bost was also examined at the hospital.
The next day, detectives presented Bost with a series of photos of thirteen suspects, but she could not identify any of them as the attacker. The photos did not include a picture of Ronnie Long.
Several days later officers escorted Bost to the district court, telling her that the man who raped her might be in the courthouse.
Fearful of a traumatic encounter, Bost agreed to wear a disguise, and on May 10, 1976, Bost pointed to a man who appeared in court for an unrelated case, Ronnie W. Long, and told officers "there was no doubt in her mind that this person Ronnie W. Long was the person who entered her house."
Bost's testimony proved crucial to the prosecution's case, especially since Long would fiercely defend himself by establishing an alibi. His attorneys also "pointed to the lack of any physical evidence tying him to the crime scene."
From the stand, Bost pointed at Ronnie Long, and that was the smoking gun as far as the all-white jury was concerned. Court documents also show the conviction being affirmed on direct appeal by the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Bost has since died.
New evidence emerges 30 years after trial
Long's legal team would file several petitions to state and federal court, but none proved effective.
In 2005, nearly 30 years after his trial, he filed one more petition to review biological evidence from the scene and submit to DNA testing.
In a major win for Long, the judge in that case ordered both prosecutors and investigators to take a deep dive into the archives and locate and preserve all the evidence.
What emerged was a treasure trove as far as Long was concerned: hair samples collected at the crime scene that didn't match Long; clothing fibers that didn't match Long's; and burned matches that didn't match Long's matchbooks.
Strikingly, none of that evidence was ever shared with the defense during the discovery phase of Long's 1976 trial.
The hospital that treated the victim, meanwhile, prepared several records showing the biological evidence collected, including a rape kit.
That was also never disclosed, and the rape kit has never been found.
A final surprise came in 2015, when Long took part in the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission's Postconviction DNA Testing Assistance Program: 43 fingerprints taken from the crime scene, also never shared with Long's defense.
According to court documents, "testing excluded Long as the source of those prints."
The startling discoveries indeed led to new hearings, and Long would also soon have a new defense team as well from Duke University's Wrongful Convictions Clinic.
Convictions still stand
Despite the startling revelations, a three judge panel from the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rejected his quest for a new trial.
In a 2-1 decision released in January, Judge Julius N. Richardson wrote that, even with the new evidence Long would've been convicted anyway.
Still, in what amounted to a small victory for Long, one judge, Stephanie D. Thacker, penned a strong dissent, thus opening an appeal to the entire Fourth Circuit.
A new hearing
Thacker is the same judge who wrote the opinion for the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday that ordered a new hearing in the case.
That could have led to an acquittal or new trial.
"That evidence has now trickled out, revealing the truth that Mr. Long has declared for decades: he should not have been found guilty," Thacker wrote. "Today, the Court remands to give the State yet another opportunity to disclose the evidence it should have disclosed nearly half a century ago. Based on the record in this case over the last fifteen years, I would not be surprised if more evidence does turn up. But since the evidence is sufficient today to grant Mr. Long the relief he has so long pursued, I would not wait for further proceedings on remand. Forty-four years is an unconscionably long period to wait for justice. It is time."
The State of North Carolina will also be asking the court to vacate Long's conviction.