A woman married a convict serving an 80-year sentence for rape after becoming his prison penpal.
Ashleigh Long, 34, and Ronnie Long, 64, have never met outside of the prison walls.
The couple met when Ashleigh wrote to Ronnie after studying his case when she was a criminal justice major in Durham, North Carolina.
He had always maintained his innocence and she became obsessed with his fight for freedom and has spent the last seven years campaigning for his release.
“I knew immediately that he was innocent,” said Ashleigh, who now works in hospitality.
She first visited Ronnie in October of 2013 and soon she was turning up at the prison every week to see him.
She realized she was in love with him in December of that year.
“I fell in love with his personality,” she said.
The couple wed at the Harnett Correctional Institution in Lillington, North Carolina, in August 2014, less than a year after meeting.
The devoted wife never doubted Ronnie’s innocence and even has his inmate number tattooed under her left breast and the words “Free Ronnie Long” inked on her shoulder.
She said: “I met him when he was considered just a number to the state of North Carolina.
“It’s a constant reminder of everything he has been through.”
Ronnie’s supporters believe that his 1976 conviction for the rape of a white woman was racially motivated and that key DNA evidence which would have absolved him was held back at trial.
Last month Ronnie’s case was heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit via online video, due to coronavirus fears.
If the panel of 15 judges find in Ronnie’s favor, his conviction could be overturned and he would be free to leave prison after 44 YEARS behind bars.
Ashleigh said: “Legally he’s further than he has ever been. The soonest we will get the decision is probably July.”
Ashleigh pointed out that DNA evidence uncovered from the house of the rape victim, who has since passed away, did not match Ronnie’s DNA and was withheld at trial.
“There was a rape kit that was never tested and the state have admitted that they don’t even know where it is,” she said.
Ronnie’s lawyer, Jamie Lau, a supervising attorney for the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic, agreed.
He said: “In a crime as brutal in nature as this, where the victim describes scratching so hard against the perp’s jacket it resulted in her nails being bent backwards, the expectation would be that whoever committed the crime would have left something behind that would reveal their identity.
“The police collected a bunch of evidence from the crime scene and when they arrested Long after the victim’s identification, they collected samples from Long and sent it all to a lab to be compared.
“And there was no evidence that Long had ever been there or committed the crime.
“There was a hair taken from the crime scene which came from an African American or Asian – the only explanation for that hair is that it was from the attacker and it didn’t match Long.
“Everything we know about the crime points away from Long and towards someone else.”
Ronnie’s fate was also in the hands of an all-white jury after defense challenges against the jury pool were dismissed by the judge.
The only evidence linking Ronnie to the crime was the victim’s identification of him, which was not secured during a lineup.
Identifications across racial groups are known to be unreliable with white Americans much more likely to mistake one black person for another than to mistakenly identify members of their own race.
Ashleigh dropped out of college to campaign for her husband’s freedom and began working in a restaurant.
She found him a pro bono attorney and set up a petition for his release which has been signed by over 10,000 people.
“Ronnie needed someone to push his case 24/7 and I was the person with the least amount of responsibilities.
“I really didn’t think it would take seven years because his innocence was so obvious to me.
“He’s one amazing guy to be able to survive this long in prison when he is innocent.
“Ronnie is sane and intelligent.”
She hopes to bring Kim Kardashian’s attention to his case, as the reality TV star was instrumental in securing the release of prisoner Alice Marie Johnson.
“I tweet Kim Kardashian and other people have been trying to reach her,” said Ashleigh.
“This is a life that we could save.”
Ashleigh hasn’t seen her husband since the beginning of March, when visits were stopped due to COVID-19.
“But we do talk multiple times a day,” she said.
“I believe he will be free, you always have to have that hope.”
Ronald Cotton, who served more than ten years of a 50-year sentence for rape until DNA evidence exonerated him, supports the campaign for Ronnie’s release.
Jennifer Thompson, the woman who falsely identified Cotton as her rapist and later became friends with him, has also lent her support to Ronnie’s campaign.