The following is Part 1 of a two-part story. It is the result of a partnership with the Indy Week in Raleigh. Don't miss the conclusion in next week's issue.
The morning of August 18, 2014, greeted Ashleigh Ward with a blast of sticky summer heat. She was excited. She was getting married, and while nobody she knew approved of the wedding, she didn't care.
Now 32 and living in Durham, Ward is petite, with thin, black-rimmed glasses and a quick laugh. The one word that best suits her is intense. Words tumble out of her mouth. When she was 17, she ran away to an Indian reservation on the Iowa-Nebraska border.
That morning, Ward slipped into a white sundress with navy stripes — $3.49 from Goodwill — and shiny black peep-toe heels. Her long, bright blonde hair fell around her shoulders. She dabbed her lips with light pink gloss.
Then she drove herself to the wedding venue, some 45 minutes from her home outside Chapel Hill. Inside, the man she would marry waited in a cream-colored button-down and freshly pressed khakis.
Ward pulled up to her destination, on East McNeill Street in Lillington, and waited under a carport. She tried not to sweat. A woman came to retrieve her, guiding her into the chapel, where the chaplain and her fiancé awaited. Neither had family members or friends there, but she noticed a few spectators wander over to watch the ceremony, lingering as the two read their vows.
Their interest wasn't totally unfounded. After all, it was an unlikely setting for an unlikely wedding: the 29-year-old Ashleigh Ward married the 59-year-old Ronnie Long, North Carolina Department of Correction inmate 0247905, at the Albemarle Correctional Institution.
Ward stamped 0247905 as close to her heart as she could get — under her left breast. She did it, she says, because she fell in love with Long when he was "just a number to the state." Above it, scrawled across her chest in cursive, Ward tattooed the three words that changed her life: "Free Ronnie Long."
- Ronnie Long and wife Ashleigh talk during Ronnie’s visitation at the Albemarle Correctional Institute on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018. (photo by Caitlin Penna)
Her husband is serving two life sentences for a crime he says he didn't commit, and he has been serving that time for decades. On October 1, 1976, Long was convicted of raping an affluent woman in Concord. At the time, he was 21, black, and the son of a concrete contractor. The victim, 54, was white and the well-heeled widow of a former executive at Cannon Mills, a major employer in the area. (She has since died.) The trial roiled an already polarized city in a racially tense era. In an affidavit, Long's former attorney recalled a courtroom split by race, with blacks on one side and whites on the other.
When the guilty verdict was read, Long's mother, Elizabeth, fainted. A riot nearly broke out in the courthouse; police carrying mace and nightsticks cleared the room. "Klan-style justice struck again on the night of October 1," declared a flyer distributed after the verdict.
The prosecution's case rested primarily on the victim's eyewitness identification of Long. During the trial, she expressed absolute certainty that he'd assaulted her.
"I'll never forget it as long as I live," she told the court.
But Long has always maintained his innocence, and his supporters say his trial and conviction were a sham. They point to the victim's first identification of Long. It was highly unusual and didn't involve a typical lineup. Then, prior to the trial, the Cabarrus County sheriff personally vetted the jury pool, according to court records, striking the names of jurors he believed to be disqualified with a red pen. The resulting jury was all-white. Three of the jurors were employed by Cannon Mills, and a fourth was married to someone who worked there.
Decades after the trial, Long's attorneys learned that physical evidence was withheld from his defense team. That evidence — including a list of items from the crime scene sent to the State Bureau of Investigation for testing, none of which produced a match to Long — is exculpatory, they say, meaning it's favorable to Long and potentially proves his innocence.
In an interview, Long calls the conviction a "modernized lynching, sanctioned by law." His sister, Lynda, calls it "cold-blooded." His mother, now 86, says thinking about it drives her crazy. She prays for her son every night and hopes she'll live long enough to see his release.
That could still happen.
Throughout the 15,118 days since his conviction (as of this publication), state courts have denied many of Long's appeals, arguing that the withheld evidence wouldn't have changed the trial's outcome. But lately, there's been movement in his favor. In 2016, Long's legal team filed a habeas corpus petition with the Middle District Court of North Carolina, asking the court to vacate Long's conviction or grant him a new trial on the grounds that the state violated Long's constitutional rights. The court dismissed that petition in 2017, but Long's attorneys appealed. In October, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal and sent the petition back to the district court. The district court judge, Catherine Eagles, could dismiss the petition again, but she could also vacate the conviction or order a new hearing.
- Ronnie and Ashleigh visit in a small room surrounded by windows. (Photo by Caitlin Penna)
The possibility of a new outcome looms over Long's family. His mother hopes the court will grant him a reprieve this time around.
"But you never know," she says. "He been in there so long. My husband died; he thought he was gonna live to see him get out. That's all he wanted. He said every day, 'I want to live to see Ronnie get out of there.'"
As told in police reports and trial transcripts, the rape took place on Sunday, April 25, 1976, around 9:45 p.m. Earlier, the victim had gone to church and the post office. She spent the evening sewing, making phone calls and getting ready to go to the beach with friends the following day. Around 9:30, she began defrosting some hamburger meat and put broccoli on the stove; when it was ready, she made her way from the kitchen to the den. Then she felt someone grab her from behind.
"Shut your damn mouth!" the man hissed, and he threw her to the floor.
The victim told police the assailant tore off her clothes, pressed a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her. He told her he had only 15 minutes and his friends were waiting for him outside, then he raped her. Whenever she tried to move, he slammed her head on the ground. At trial, she testified that she was panicked during the attack — "so frightened" she "couldn't stand it."
The phone rang, jolting the attacker. He gathered his things and left through the front door. The victim fled. Her neighbor heard a loud beating on her back door and saw the victim standing there, completely naked.
The neighbor's husband called the police; they arrived at about 10 p.m. According to the initial incident report, the victim said she'd been attacked by a black man wearing a leather jacket, a beanie and possibly gloves. She described him as having slim hips, a slender build and an occasionally soft-spoken voice. She elaborated on her attacker's appearance during the trial, telling the court he had a complexion that was "yellow-looking" and "just not totally black. Not like, you know, a blue-black, black man." (Long has a dark complexion.)
The victim was rushed to the emergency room of the Cabarrus Memorial Hospital. There, she was examined by a doctor who, according to medical records, followed existing rape protocols and collected biological evidence, including pubic hair and fluids.
With the victim in the hospital, police officers investigated the crime scene. Van Isenhour, a detective with the Concord Police Department, arrived at the victim's home around 10:30, according to his testimony. Isenhour photographed the house and began collecting evidence. He searched for fingerprints and, the following morning, lifted a latent shoeprint from a column near her porch, which the attacker had presumably climbed to break into the house. Isenhour also collected latent fingerprints, carpet samples, suspect hair and paint samples, as well as pieces of the victim's clothing and partially burned matches. He later brought them to the SBI office in Raleigh for examination.
At the hospital, Sgt. David Taylor presented the victim with a photographic lineup of 13 possible suspects; they were all black men, ages 20 to 30. Long was not among them, and the victim couldn't identify anyone from the photo array. Ten days later, Taylor and Lt. George Vogler stopped by the victim's house and asked her to come with them to the district court on the morning of May 10. They wanted her to observe everyone in the courtroom in case her assailant was there. (See sidebar, below right.)
"She was told that the person who committed the offense could or could not be in court on that day, and that she was not going to court for the specific reason of picking out a person that was in the courtroom," Taylor testified.
They told the victim to wear a disguise. So, five days later — and 15 days after the crime — when the officers picked her up and brought her to court, she had on a blue pantsuit, red wig and glasses.
The victim's neighbor accompanied her. The two sat in the left side of gallery, as the officers surveyed them from the jury box. Long was seated in the middle of the gallery. He was in court to resolve a misdemeanor charge for trespassing in a public park, which he received after a judge suspended him from the area for getting into a scuffle.
The victim later recalled about 35 to 50 people in the courtroom, and about a dozen African Americans. She waited there, alert, for more than an hour. Finally, the judge called Long to come forward. The victim alerted her neighbor: "That's the one," she whispered.
After she identified Long, the officers asked her about her level of confidence. She was certain. "There is no doubt in my mind," she told them. "Absolutely no doubt."
They brought her to the police station, where they once again showed her a photo lineup of suspects. Long was in this one, and she selected his photo. Asked at the trial if anything distinctive about the suspect's clothing grabbed her attention, she noted Long's coat.
"It was the jacket," she said, referring to Long, who was the only person in the lineup wearing a leather coat. "It was the identical, one identical to it. It was a leather jacket."
During the trial, the victim demurred when the judge asked her if it was possible the officers asked her to pick Long. "They could have," she replied, "but I don't know, I don't remember finding out, even finding out that when, what his name was really."
- Ronnie and Ashleigh hold hands during a recent visit. (Photo by Caitlin Penna)
This method of identification is highly concerning to criminal justice and misidentification experts. They point out that the victim, in the courtroom with her possible assailant, was placed in a stressful and potentially retraumatizing environment, and by the time she identified Long, more than two weeks had passed since the attack. Moreover, eyewitness identifications across racial lines — for example, a white woman identifying a black man — are particularly prone to getting it wrong.
Jennifer Soble, a senior attorney for Harvard's Fair Punishment Project, which advocates for criminal justice reform, says the identification was "plainly illegal." Soble points to the cops' suggestion that the assailant could be in the courtroom, which could signal the victim that they already have a suspect in mind or have insider knowledge about the case.
"Identification procedures should never reveal which individual, if anyone, law enforcement already suspects," she says. "Because when the law enforcement agent suggests that a particular person is a suspect, that suggestion can subconsciously direct the witness toward that suspect, even if the witness would never have picked that person using a proper identification procedure."
Karen Newirth, a staff attorney at the Innocence Project, agrees that Long's identification was improper. She adds that the leather jacket Long was identified in was significant and could have subconsciously influenced the victim.
"What we know about how memory works and how people make identifications is, this isn't happening on a conscious level," Newirth says. "It's happening on an unconscious level. The social-science researchers would say the only procedure that has any forensic value to tell us something about the likelihood that the suspect is in fact the person who committed the crime is the first procedure, and the first procedure should be a nonsuggestive procedure. He was not in the first photo lineup."
However unorthodox the identification procedure was, when Long was in the courthouse, he had no idea he was a suspect in a rape case. After his misdemeanor charge was dismissed, he drove to his home in Concord, where he lived with his parents.
A few hours later, Taylor and Officer Marshall Lee came knocking. Long was taken into state custody that evening. He would never go home again.
Long lingers in the visitation center of the Albemarle Correctional Institution on a cool afternoon in December. He's in khakis, white sneakers and a beige button-down shirt. His head is shaved smooth, and he wears glasses. His baritone voice has a gravelly edge.
- Ronnie Long at Abemarle Correctional Institution.
It's just before Christmas, and the harshly lit visitation center is decorated appropriately. Grim-faced, Long stands under a banner tacked onto the room's white walls. "Tis the season for joy," the banner reads, in green block letters. He clasps a manila envelope filled with legal files and asks about the drive to Albemarle, about two hours southwest of Raleigh, where he's been locked up for the past year. He moves into a boxy interview room nearby, places his folder on the desk, and settles into a chair.
Before everything changed four decades ago, Long says, he had a fairly typical life. He was born in Charlotte but grew up in Concord with his seven brothers and sisters. His father was a proud man, a member of the Freemasons, and a concrete contractor. In school, Long followed in his father's footsteps, taking masonry courses and learning how to set stone. He also played sports — basketball, baseball and football — at Concord City High School.
"I was just your average teenager," he says.
Even so, Long knew there were places he couldn't go. The city was segregated, he says, and there were parts of town in which he wasn't welcome: "They let you know you can't come this way. You can't live up here, you can't come this far."
Long, who grew up in a politically minded household, was keenly aware of this reality. His dad, he says, was the vice president of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, a group spawned from the Depression-era labor organization Southern Conference for Human Welfare; by the '50s and '60s, the SCEF had turned its attention to civil rights, focusing on racial discrimination in the workplace and working closely with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC (pronounced "Snick"). Long recalls standing in front of mills as a kid, passing out leaflets urging workers to unionize.
Occasionally, Long's political consciousness got the best of him. He describes an encounter with two white police officers when he was about 19 and walking through a predominantly white neighborhood. The cops stopped him and asked why he was out.
"Why am I out?" he replied. "Isn't this America? I don't have the right to be on this sidewalk?" The officers handcuffed him and hauled him downtown.
These racial dynamics form a key part of Long's conviction, his supporters argue. His case, they say, cannot be understood without staring into the ugliest parts of North Carolina's past.
One of those supporters is Joel Harlow, a self-described Texas conservative who stumbled upon Long's case one day while commenting on a post on Facebook. Harlow became one of Long's strongest advocates.
"I am an East Texas conservative, beer drinking, gun-loving banker, rancher, cattleman that is so right-wing I make Ted Cruz look like Bernie Sanders," Harlow stated in an email. He added in all caps: "If I, with all the built-in biases that I have because of my background, can see his innocence, why can no one else?"
Harlow doesn't hesitate to ascribe racism to Long's plight.
"I'll put it this way," he says. "If this would have happened five years earlier, he wouldn't have had a trial. He would have been hanging from a tree."
Officers Lee, Taylor and Ludwig stopped by Long's home on May 10, 1976, the day the victim identified him. From there, the accounts of Long and the police officers begin to diverge.
At trial, Long testified that the officers told him he needed to return to the station to straighten out the trespassing charge. Taylor, meanwhile, testified that Long wasn't given a reason; instead, they just asked him to "come by" the police department, and Long agreed.
While they were talking, Long testified, his father approached the officers, asking if he needed to accompany his son to the station or provide him with an attorney. The officers, according to Long and his father, told him he did not. "They say it'll only take about 10 or 15 minutes," his father testified. "He'll be right back."
Long hadn't been told that he was suspected of rape. That came soon after, though. He arrived at the police station at about 6:45 p.m., was read his rights and told he was a suspect.
Long says he was stunned.
Here again, the stories take separate paths. The officers said they asked Long for consent to search his mom's car, which he drove to the station. They later acknowledged that they did not obtain a search warrant but said they did not need one, as Long agreed to the search. Long, meanwhile, testified that Vogler asked him to empty his pockets on the table, took his car keys without providing an explanation, and then went downstairs. Long said they never asked permission to search the car, nor did he give it.
Either way, the cops searched Long's car. There, they testified, they found a pair of gloves in the sun visor, matchbooks, and a beanie in the front seat. Long admits that the gloves were his, but he's always said that the beanie wasn't — and that it wasn't in the car. At the trial, several witnesses, including Long's dad, said they'd never seen the hat on Long.
After searching the car, the officers took Long to the office of the magistrate, who drew up warrants for his arrest. Even then, Long says, he wasn't truly aware of how serious things had become.
"Ain't no way in the world they could do this to me," Long thought.
He would soon find out how wrong he was.
Stay tuned to clclt.com for the conclusion of Ronnie Long's story, or find it in next week's edition of Creative Loafing.