RALEIGH, N.C. (WBTV) - Governor Roy Cooper issued a pardon of innocence to five men on Thursday, each of whom had been convicted of crimes they did not commit.
Among the five men to receive a pardon of innocence was Ronnie Long, who spent more than four decades in prison before being released earlier this year.
The four other men, Teddy Isbell, Damian Mills, Kenneth Kagonyera and Larry Williams, were co-defendants in a 2000 Buncombe County murder case and had coerced into pleading guilty, even though they were innocent.
The pardons make the men eligible to receive compensation from the state for the time they spent in prison.
Thursday’s pardons were the first time in his nearly four years as governor that Cooper had used his clemency power.
A WBTV investigation in October found that Cooper was on track to be the first governor in more than 40 years -- since records were kept -- to not grant any clemency petition. That will no longer be the case with Thursday’s action.
Cooper released the following statement in announcing the pardons of innocence on Thursday:
“We must continue to work to reform our justice system and acknowledge when people have been wrongly convicted. I have carefully reviewed the facts in each of these cases and, while I cannot give these men back the time they served, I am granting them Pardons of Innocence in the hope that they might be better able to move forward in their lives,” said Governor Cooper.
The news came as a surprise to Long and his attorney, Jamie Lau. Neither were expecting a call Thursday that the governor would issue a pardon of innocence within the hour.
“This came as a surprise that today was the day that the governor decided to act,” Lau said. “Ronnie was thrilled when I had the opportunity to speak with him and to share the news.”
Lau pointed out that while the pardons of innocence granted Thursday were welcome news, he said other petitions for pardons of innocence were still pending for other men who were convicted of crimes they did not commit.
“There are still others with pardon applications before the governor, and we hope that this is a start and that the governor is still giving consideration to other deserving individuals,” Lau said.
The ACLU of North Carolina, which has been part of a group holding vigil for freedom and racial justice outside the governor’s mansion since early November, struck a similar tone.
“More can and must be done by Governor Cooper. The people of North Carolina are looking for leadership in dismantling the racist criminal legal system, a system that he has played a role in creating during the past three decades that he has held elected office.
The ACLU called on Cooper to use his clemency power to release people from the state’s prisons, many of which are dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks. Last week, a judge officially appointed an outside supervisor to monitor the prison system’s handling of the virus as part of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of a coalition of special interest groups.
This is a developing story. Check back on WBTV.Com and watch WBTV News tonight for more.