DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- "Free Ronnie Long" isn't a slogan any more. It's reality.
"That's relief," the now free Ronnie Long said in an exclusive interview with ABC11. "You wake up inside the institution and you wonder if you're going to make it that day or not. I just kept saying, 'there's no way in the world this lie is going to stand.'"
Originally from Concord, Long 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 last month finally allowed Long's attorneys to review biological evidence from the scene. That evidence supported Long's profession of innocence.
When North Carolina officials chose not to appeal the ruling, Long's case was essentially tossed and his charges dropped. He walked out of prison a free man August 27.
"Something happened to that woman and she was trying to find out who it was," Long said, adding that he harbors no anger towards her. "The setup was all the way down. It wasn't about finding the person who committed the crime. It wasn't about that. I didn't rape nobody. If I deserve anything, it's an apology. Give the man his just due. That's all I'm asking for. Help me to survive."
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 offered Bost another opportunity to identify the suspect: visit a courthouse where court proceedings examined alleged crimes with similar characteristics.
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, 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.
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.
Ronnie Long was 20 years old when he was sent to prison. Now 64, a career is out of the question.
Long's wife, Ashleigh, has been spending hours on the phone and waiting in lines to get Ronnie's life back in order when it comes to state identifications, social security, medicare, and even a bank account.
"You can't do anything online because they can't verify his information online because he's been nonexistent for 44 years," Ashleigh said. "Same thing with the bank. There was a freeze on this credit because they're like, 'Who is this person?'"
Still, for Ashleigh, it's a good problem simply because it means Ronnie is home.
"It still seems surreal. I always thought it would happen but there was a fear in the back of my mind that the courts wouldn't see through the justice."
The two say they plan to rent an RV and travel to see Ronnie's old friends. They also hope to visit and thank some of his supporters from across the country.
The Longs are also seeking a full pardon from Governor Roy Cooper.
"Have my struggles stopped? Have my struggles ended? No," Long said. "I want to be compensated for the 44 years I was incarcerated for nothing."