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JUST DO WHAT THE LAW SAY DO, JUST DO WHAT THE HEART SAY DO:
A Friendship Between an Innocent Black Inmate and a Free White Woman
As I swim laps in the refreshing pool along with mostly other white people like me, I think about my friend Ronnie Long who’s sweltering in the unremitting heat and humidity of a North Carolina prison, two hours east. I keep myself sheltered and fairly safe from COVID-19, while he lives in a dorm crammed with 31 other inmates, mostly Black like he. I’ve lived a privileged life; this good-hearted man, full of integrity and dignity but whose story is one of lies, deception, corruption, and racial bias, has suffered in prison for 44 years for a crime he did not commit.
Ronnie and I became friends two years ago, when we began a robust correspondence. I had asked my acquaintance Jamie Lau, supervising attorney for Duke Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, whether he knew anyone who needed mail. “Write to Ronnie Long,” he suggested. “He could use more support.”
I didn’t know much about Ronnie’s case then. Did he commit the crime of which he had been accused? I wasn’t sure. I only cared that here was a human being, suffering in prison for more than 40 years. I was someone who grew up in New York City and who was retired from four professional careers. I traveled the world with my husband. Here was Ronnie, who had grown up in a small town in the South, played sports and did masonry work, whose freedom was snatched away when he was only 19 years old. Could I offer him any substantial emotional support? Was it possible to embrace our differences to establish an authentic connection?
Early on, Ronnie and I discovered that we differed in ways more significant than race or background. He’s a Duke Blue Devils fan, and I root for the UNC Tar Heels, one of the most contentious rivalries in college basketball. He wrote, “Helen, my good friend Helen, what a sad day it was this weekend for a UNC TarHeel. [tiny letters, his]. Sweet, sweet! I wonder what rhymes with sweet. OH! I got it! . . . SWEEP!” I began writing DOOK in giant print, and we bantered with each other mercilessly. Unfortunately, we eventually misunderstood each other’s teasing. We each sent a letter of apology to the other, and we agreed to put the matter behind us, because as Ronnie wrote, “Your friendship is more important than any team.” I felt the same. Ronnie Long, a person whose early life was subject to mistreatment by the White culture in which he grew up and whose adulthood to the dehumanizing environment and horror of trying to survive in prison, was capable of resolving conflict, forgiveness, and choosing the high road.
Ronnie credits his survival to his deep and abiding faith. Nothing, I believe, makes Ronnie feel more grateful than to know people are praying for him. “As always, I give praise and honor to my Creator for blessing me with another day to see the sun rise. I figure, as long as I can see the sun rise I have to be doing very good . . .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. I often wonder how I did it myself, and for me to think that something of this nature couldn’t happen to me; were only a demonstration of how naïve I were as a young Black man. Throughout history Black men has been a marked product for racial discrimination . . .so why not me.
“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. 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.”
In January 2019, a few months after Ronnie and I began our correspondence, I attended a symposium on Ronnie Long’s case at Winston-Salem State University, an historically Black college. I was excited to meet Ronnie’s sister and one of his childhood friends, who had left his profession to become a correctional officer in a prison for a couple of years in order to better understand Ronnie’s experience. Several hundred students attended. During the Q&A, a young Black woman stood up; she couldn’t hold back tears as she asked Ronnie’s lead attorney Jamie Lau, who is White, “I was born in Africa. I want to know, I really want to know, why you spend your life helping my people.”
Jamie stood and moved around from his seat at the table. He responded passionately, “I didn’t start out doing this work. I taught high school mathematics before I went to law school. After law school, I started working on post-conviction cases and helped a man get out of prison, and the day he walked free, he hugged me with unbridled gratitude. When you’ve been touched by the system, there’s nothing else you can do but to work to make it better and correct its errors.”
That day, I donned a Free Ronnie Long bracelet and it’s been on my wrist ever since. I tell Ronnie that it’s not coming off until the day he’s free, and I affirm for him, over and over, that that day is coming. Sometimes strangers ask me what the date on the bracelet – May 10, 1976 – means. They’re usually shocked to learn that’s the day Ronnie Long was taken into custody.
Not long ago, I heard of a public book club in my town which was to discuss Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I’d read the book twice and was working with an incarcerated client of Mr. Stevenson’s. The group met in a coffee shop south of Chapel Hill. I hadn’t realized that most of its members belonged to The Local Church, Pittsboro, NC. After our lively discussion, their pastor, Brent Levy, approached me. “You seem to know a lot about this topic, Helen,” he said. “Can we meet for coffee sometime? I’d like to learn more.” At our meeting, Brent took copious notes. I’m surely not an expert but I’ve been a criminal justice volunteer for six years and have devoured books, taken courses, trained in restorative justice, and attended lectures. Brent was so moved that he reached out to Ronnie. Please see the sidebar for more on Brent and Ronnie.
Ronnie Long often writes about his case. “In May 1976 two detectives came to my parents’ home with lies. They told my mother, ‘I needed to come back downtown to sign some papers in reference to the trespassing matter this morning (see that very same day, I had to appear in court on a trespassing charge that was dismissed). My mom asked if I needed a lawyer to go with me. Their response was, ‘No he doesn’t, he will only be gone 10 – 15 minutes.’ My mother told me to call her when I got there and call her when I leave. I called her when I got there, but I haven’t left yet to make that other call, and those 10 - 15 minutes has now become 44 years.”
I began to read more about the case.
A 56-year old white woman in Concord, NC, a member of the prominent Cannon Mills family, had been raped. She was brought to the courthouse 15 days after the crime and informed that her assailant was in the room. The victim took 90 minutes to point to Ronnie, although he’d been there all that time. She explained that he looked “most similar” to the attacker, and she chose Ronnie only when his name was called out for a minor trespassing charge (later dropped). She had initially described her attacker as light-skinned and free of facial hair, while Ronnie is dark and sported a beard. None of the evidence collected at the crime scene and analyzed by the state crime lab – hair or 43 fingerprints - matched Ronnie or evidence collected from Ronnie. This evidence was withheld from both the defense and the prosecuting attorneys, evidence that wasn’t uncovered until decades later. Ronnie was tried by an all-White jury, three of whom worked for Cannon Mills. Every witness for the presecution was White; every witness for the defense was Black. The detective who investigated the case lied during the trial. Ronnie was offered a plea deal which would have allowed him to return home in three years. He didn’t accept, knowing he was up against the death penalty, because, he said, “I was raised to tell the truth.” Between his arrest and sentencing, the death penalty was repealed, and he received two life sentences. The more I learned, the more heartbroken, grief-stricken, outraged, and sickened I became.
As a criminal justice volunteer since 2014, I have worked, studied, read, and learned about the real history of the United States: the plight of Black people, particularly as it relates to poverty, mass incarceration, and structural and institutional racism. I’ve met a number of wrongfully imprisoned and exonerated women and men. Their stories and the stories of their families, friends, the crime victims, and their communities, disturb me profoundly, because of the massive harm done when an innocent person is incarcerated. I perceive Ronnie Long’s ordeal as among the most egregious of these appalling injustices. Ronnie describes his situation as a modernized lynching.
That’s what it must have seemed like to a young 26-year-old woman named AshLeigh Ward when she first heard of Ronnie Long in the summer of 2013. She studied his court records, wrote to him, and began visiting him in prison. They fell in love, and on August 18, 2014, they married. AshLeigh Long has fought for Ronnie’s freedom relentlessly and fiercely ever since.
I invited AshLeigh to meet with me shortly after I befriended Ronnie. We bonded over hot chocolate. She is a beautiful woman who wears FreeRonnieLong tee shirts and, now during COVID-19, FreeRonnieLong masks. “When I got involved with Ronnie,” she told me, “I had no intention of any sort of romantic relationship. I didn’t realize I’d fall in love with him. He’s an easy guy to love, but nothing about our situation is easy. Both our families are against our marriage, we can’t be together, and we can’t even talk on a regular basis. I can’t see him every day. I hear him suffer and there’s nothing I can do to end it.” Until COVID-19 cruelly stopped prison visitations, she drove the four hours round trip every Friday.
I write to Ronnie about once a week, always including either an inspirational, funny, or informative item with my message. Since the pandemic, I write to him more often. I will never forget, and took to heart, what I heard the former warden of a prison say: “You can never understand what mail means to an inmate.” I’ve given Ronnie my phone number, and I rejoice when he calls, every few weeks. He told me that when he’s a free man, he will “hug my neck.” I anticipate that joyous day.
I cannot imagine the frustration Ronnie, his family, friends, and legal team must feel. He’s been disappointed over and over again by the many years of court appeals. In March 2019, I attended the oral arguments at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. The courtroom was packed with Ronnie’s supporters: students and professors from three universities, people who follow his case, and his friends and family. I was thrilled that day to meet Ronnie’s son and more of his childhood friends. I drove to Richmond with Jennifer Thompson, Founder and President of Healing Justice Project, an organization that addresses the individual and collective harm caused by wrongful convictions. This national non-profit works with exonerees, crime victims and survivors, family members, and criminal justice practitioners.
“Wrongful convictions are the worst criminal justice system failure there is,” Jennifer says. “It creates deep and wide harm to so many people. From the wrongfully convicted man or woman, their families, the victims and survivors and the community, everyone gets hurt. These are true cases with no winners, except the perpetrator, who is often never caught and continues to inflict enormous loss and grief.
“In Ronnie's case, the victim died without receiving true justice for what was done to her, an innocent man has been imprisoned for over two-thirds of his life, his family has lost the opportunity to create memories with their loved one, and the people of Concord, North Carolina, have been left at the hands of an actual rapist. This is what I call concentric circles of harm, and the perpetrator and the criminal justice system are in the center.”
Healing Justice Project
It took the Fourth Circuit Court nine months, excruciating, torturous, and stressful months for Ronnie, to hand down another disappointing decision. “My hands are moving in a jerking, trembling type manner,” wrote Ronnie in a letter to me. “Before I get into the raw essence of this letter, how are you and Fred doing? Are you making the most of each day? I’m still trying to digest the decision made by the Fourth Circuit. It’s perplexing to me how one judge can see it one way, and the two (2) other judges don’t see the Constitutional errors. My rights has been violated, or do Blacks even have rights. Whatever happen to liberty and justice for all, and all men are created equally. I just want them to do what the law say do.” Ronnie’s anguish is palpable, yet he still first asks after my husband and me.
The Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke Law never stops fighting for Ronnie Long’s freedom, and in January 2020 it requested and was awarded an en banc hearing in front of the full panel of the 15 judges of the Fourth Circuit Court.
Justice Wynn said, “What is it about us that we want to prosecute and keep people in jail when we know evidence may exist that might lead to a different conclusion? Why is that so offensive to us now that we want to go and protect activity that happened 44 years ago? . . . When did justice leave the court? . . . We have some rules that will let us just . . . go on with our lives. That's the question, when did justice leave the process, such that we let our rules blind us to the realities that we all can see.” It’s now been more than three months without a ruling. As Ronnie awaits, stressed and anxious, he recognizes the decision may come any day or may be many months away.
In the meantime, AshLeigh Long manages Ronnie’s website, organizes marches and petitions, appears on TV spots and podcasts and posts on social media to help her husband. “I live Free Ronnie Long,” she exclaims. “My entire world revolves around Ronnie Long. The job that I have, I chose it because it can work around my schedule with Ronnie. I eat, sleep, breathe Free Ronnie Long. Everything I do, I do it with Ronnie in mind. Even when Ronnie and I are having issues, he is always on my mind.” She now has over 37,000 signatures on the petition, and Ronnie’s case has been featured on national TV, podcasts, and news channels. Peaceful protests happen regularly.
The day that Ronnie Long walks free, and I steadfastly affirm that day is coming, will be a joyous one, but not a victorious one. Ronnie’s dearest dream has been to see his mother again. She died a few weeks ago, at the age of 89. Her last words were, “Has Ronnie come home?” Decades stolen from a good man’s life are irreplaceable. Ronnie has concerns about how he’ll manage. “To be respected and treated like a human matters, to have everything you care about taken from you matters, to have what little meaningless life you had taken from you matters, to think about what you going to do, with what life you have left matters. Where does a sixty-four (64) year old Black man fit in this society. What is it he is suppose to do at this age, to become this productive citizen. I mean really. I don’t have parents who are well endowed and leaving me with a substantial settlement. Being able to survive matters. So, even after struggling many years with this injustice, my struggles will continue long after I’m released.”
I think Ronnie Long is a great man, a truly great man, to have maintained his integrity, humanity, humor, and decency throughout his decades of suffering. Though I feel I’ve done so little for him, in his most recent letter, he wrote, “I will be beyond elatement the day I walk out of here. I say this all the time because I need you to know how much you are appreciated. Since day one you have been a true trooper and a devoted comrade. May grace forever be the light that guides your heart.” I’m deeply humbled by Ronnie’s sentiments, especially since it’s only been two years, but our relationship has been a rich exchange of meaningful friendship and love.
I hope with all my heart that one day soon, Ronnie Long can rest, heal, and soothe his weary body, mind and spirit in whatever way pleases him . . . perhaps in a refreshing swimming pool.
On August 26, 2020, the State vacated Ronnie’s conviction just days after the 4th Circuit Court ruled, in a 9-6 decision, that his Constitutional rights were violated at trial. Ronnie is finally coming home.
I dedicate this article to Jamie Lau, Ronnie Long’s lead attorney and his team and to all their talented law students for their dedicated hard work over the years to free Ronnie and others like him.
Helen Spielman loves her friends, her grandchildren and her husband of 45 years, for whom she creates fun paper art and colorful crochet items. She loves to eat ice cream but makes herself work out instead. Helen enjoys drinking coffee and traveling the world. A resident of Chapel Hill, NC, she’s the author of the popular book, A Flute in My Refrigerator: Celebrating a Life in Music. You are invited to visit her website or contact her at http://PerformConfidently.com.
I asked The Rev. Brent Levy of The Local Church, Pittsboro, NC about his connection to Ronnie Long.
2. What motivated you to write him?
I was motivated to write for many of the same reasons I was motivated to pray. I talk a lot about the importance of relationship. It's at the heart of who we are. Writing Ronnie a letter was my attempt to begin a relationship. I hope my words and presence will offer some connection and meaning to Ronnie; I know his will do the same for me. In addition, as we find ourselves in a global pandemic, I feel so incredibly disconnected in all kinds of ways. If I'm feeling this, I can't imagine how much more my sisters and brothers who are incarcerated might feel that same disconnection — especially now when visitors are not allowed. This was one simple act of love I could do to let him know he's loved, cared for, and lifted to the light.
3. Have you ever done prison work before?
I have, in a very limited capacity, and have always wanted to do more. Admittedly, I make all kinds of excuses or fill my time in other ways. COVID allowed me to reorder some priorities, and I'm grateful for Helen's gentle nudge toward writing, which came at just the right time.
4. In what way are you including your congregation?
I am including our congregation by inviting them to write to persons who are incarcerated who may be feeling that same disconnection. So much of what we do is rooted in relationship.
5. What in your faith compels you to reach out to inmates?
I believe so much that when we draw closer to another, we're also getting closer to the heart of God. For many, persons who are incarcerated are reduced to numbers or problems in need of solving or come to carry an identity defined by the worst thing they've ever done. Our faith teaches that grace and second chances abound, and that each person has stories and experiences and loves and lives worth seeing, knowing, and loving. When I am able to re-humanize another for myself, I become more fully human, too.