In August, Ronnie Long walked out of prison and into the record books in the number 3 slot on the list of Americans who've served the longest sentences for crimes they didn't commit. In Long's case, it was 44 years for the 1976 rape of 54-year-old widow Sarah Bost in North Carolina. In a piece for Esquire, Jason Flom writes that he's well acquainted with wrongful convictions as the founding board member of the Innocence Project and the host of the podcast Wrongful Conviction. And "in all the time I've spent fighting for criminal justice reform, I've rarely seen a case as bad as Ronnie Long's." Flom runs down why: To start, there was plenty of forensic evidence, but none that linked in any way to 20-year-old Long, who Bost took 90 minutes to identify as her attacker.
She had described that attacker as a clean-shaven and light-skinned Black man in a leather coat; Long is dark-skinned, had facial hair, and while he was in a leather coat when she IDed him, neither it nor him was scratched. Bost had resisted her attacker so forcefully that her fingernails bent backward. The punishment on the books in North Carolina for a rape conviction was death; prosecutors offered him a plea deal "so generous that it might well have called into question the strength of their case," writes Flom: seven years, with the potential to be out in just 3. He didn't take it. The 12-member jury was all white and 4 of them had professional ties to Bost's late husband. Long's sole bit of "luck," per Flom, was that a Supreme Court ruling on the state's death-penalty statutes allowed Long to get two life sentences instead of death. (Read the full story for what came next.)