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A North Carolina man who was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for 44 years has received a $750,000 check from the state, but says he’s owed much more.
Ronnie Long, 65, was only compensated for 15 years of the more than four decades he spent behind bars on rape charges he was ultimately cleared of, his lawyers said.
Long, 65, who is Black, was convicted by an all-white jury for raping a white woman in 1976, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com. He was sentenced to life in prison. Long’s attorneys have described his conviction as a “racial injustice,” according to local station WCNC.
The Concord man was exonerated and released in August 2020. Last December, Long was pardoned by Gov. Roy Cooper, officially paving the way for compensation from the state. He recently received a $750,000 check to make up for his wrongful imprisonment.
Long, however, believes the state hasn’t fully — or fairly — compensated him after unjustly depriving him of his freedom for decades.
"You took my 20s, my 30s, my 40s and my 50s and you still talking about this is worth that?" Long told USA TODAY.
Long accused state officials and the court system of permanently fracturing his family. In July 2020, a month before he was freed, Long’s mother died, according to WCNC.
"North Carolina intentionally put me in the penitentiary and you tell me $750,000 is worth 44 years of my life?” Long told WCNC. “You killed my mother and my father.”
Under North Carolina law, individuals wrongly convicted of a crime are owed $50,000 for each year they are incarcerated. However, that amount is capped at $750,000 — meaning that Long won’t be compensated for 29 years of time served.
Other states have similar laws. Mississippi, for example, caps the wrongful incarceration payouts at 10 years and $500,000. Long’s case bears parallels to that of Curtis Flowers, the Winona, Mississippi man who was wrongly convicted in the slayings of four people in 1996 — and spent more than two decades on death row. Flowers received just $500,000 from Mississippi, according to WMAC.
Long’s legal team also blasted the payout as “wholly inadequate.”
“He was in a cage when both his parents died; when his son had birthdays and graduations,” his attorney Jamie T. Lau told Oxygen.com in a statement on Friday. “He lost everything for those 44 years, and certainly he deserves more than he has received.”
Lau said the “only avenue” for Long to be fully compensated at this point would be through a civil lawsuit, an option his legal team is actively exploring.
“Unlike others who are 65 years old, he lost his working years to incarceration and has no savings,” Lau said. “He entered prison healthy and left broken. His ongoing financial security is the least he deserves after so much was taken over those 44 years.”
Long’s case, he said, illustrates an immediate need to increase the statutory cap for wrongly convicted individuals statewide.
"The statutory cap should be raised, as it is inadequate for people incarcerated for decades, especially when they are incarcerated during prime working years," Lau said. "It's time to revisit this amount since we are learning the magnitude of the harm caused by wrongful convictions in North Carolina. It's also time to revisit the compensation statute as a whole, as the governor should not have full authority over who does and does not receive compensation.”
In North Carolina, wrongful conviction compensation largely hinges on the governor's approval. It's one of only a handful of states to require a gubernatorial pardon in order for a wrongly convicted individual to be eligible for a payout.
"[The] law needs to change to provide an avenue of compensation that is untethered to the Governor, as at least six other individuals are waiting on action from the Governor despite being exonerated by the courts," Lau said. "Some of these individuals have waited years with no action from the Governor and no compensation from the State."
The only other method for a wrongfully convicted individual to claim compensation is if they're directly exonerated by a judiciary panel overseen by the Innocence Inquiry Commission. In those cases, the pardon is automatic. Lau, however, described that option as a "unique process that aids a small subset of exonerees."
Long, who is now basking in his newfound freedom, said a number of civil rights attorneys have since reached out to him after news of his payout broke. The 65-year-old recently purchased a Cadillac and enjoys spending time bicycling with his wife, Ashleigh Ward, whom he married in prison in 2014.
"Even though I'm still struggling, I'm blessed," Long told WCNC.
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