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North Carolina man wrongly convicted of rape released from prison after 44 years

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kuzma/iStockBy KARMA ALLEN, ABC News

(STANLY COUNTY, N.C.) — A North Carolina man hugged his family as a free man for the first time in decades this week after serving 44 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Ronnie Long was greeted by family and community members who had long proclaimed his innocence on Thursday afternoon when he made his long-awaited exit from the Albemarle Correctional Institution in Stanly County, North Carolina.

He had spent 44 years arguing for an appeal, along with a team of advocates and pro bono attorneys, in an effort to overturn his 1976 conviction. The team logged a victory earlier this week when the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Long’s constitutional rights had been violated during his trial.

Long was 20 years old when an all-white jury sentenced him to 80 years in prison for raping a notable white woman in his hometown of Concord, North Carolina. He was convicted despite a lack of physical evidence tying him to the rape. In 2005, his attorneys discovered evidence that was withheld during the trial and could have proved his innocence, according to a website dedicated to freeing Long.

“At the beginning of this ordeal, if anyone would have told me that I would be locked up for forty-three (43) years, I would have thought them to be totally insane. There isn’t no way I can put up with this monotony for 43 years,” Long wrote in a journal entry posted on the website. “Throughout history Black men has been a marked product for racial discrimination … so why not me.”

In a separate part of the entry, Long indicated that he was simply convicted because of his race, saying the cards were always “stacked against” him.

“After really contemplating on the subject, the evidence may not have made a different because the deck was stacked against me, and it wouldn’t have mattered what type of evidence I had against the state,” he said. “I were going to prison. I had been chosen and I were going to prison. Some 40-plus years later, I’m still around, still here fighting, and if it be the will of the Creator, I shall overcome.”

Long, just days from his 65th birthday, said he got through the ordeal due to God and family.

“That was my inspiration,” Long told Charlotte ABC affiliate WSOC, gesturing to his family. “I got my inspiration from them, and God. It felt good because I was getting feedback that I was loved and supported.”

“They will never, ever, ever, ever lock me up again,” Long added.

A GoFundMe campaign set up by his wife, Ashleigh Long, had raised about $12,000 as of Friday afternoon. Ashleigh Long, who married him in 2014, said she set up the $500,000 fundraiser to help with her husband’s transition to life outside of prison.

“Ronnie is going to need everything when he is freed. ANY amount helps. Everything donated will go to Ronnie to use when he is free,” the campaign said. “Come on #TeamRonnieLong let’s get Ronnie set up to enjoy his life as a free man!”

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