Innocent men were sent to prison and released decades later. Now Gov. Cooper won’t pardon them

Ronnie Long has been released from prison as a court has ruled to vacate his 1976 rape...
Ronnie Long has been released from prison as a court has ruled to vacate his 1976 rape conviction.(Ron Lee/WBTV)
Updated: Oct. 15, 2020 at 11:57 PM EDT
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DURHAM, N.C. (WBTV) – Tim Bridges still gets emotional when he thinks about his meeting with then-Governor Pat McCrory.

Bridges and McCrory were meeting to discuss his application for a pardon of innocence.

“I walked in, he shook my hand and apologized and gave me a hug,” Bridges recalled through tears.

Bridges spent 25 years in prison after being convicted in Charlotte for a rape he didn’t commit.

He was released from prison in 2015 and exonerated after a court proceeding unearthed new evidence that proved he was not the perpetrator.

For the first three months out of prison, he stayed with his uncle, who bought him a car and got him clothes.

After a quarter-century in prison, Bridges said, it’s hard to find a job.

“It was frustrating because I went for a good while trying to find a job,” he said. “I had one job I got, washing school buses at night. You’d do that for a little while and then you’d go out to the airport and wash buses.”

Bridges had to rely on the help of relatives and whatever job he could get to support himself because, under North Carolina law, he could not receive any compensation from the state without first being granted a pardon of innocence by the governor.

That’s why he was in McCrory’s office.

“He couldn’t apologize enough. It was cool,” Bridges recalled, choking back tears thinking about the meeting.

“He said ‘I’m going to make sure you get your pardon and every penny I can give you.’”

Bridges is one of ten total people to receive a pardon—including pardons of innocence and others—by McCrory during his four-year term, according to a January 2017 article in the Raleigh News & Observer. The state does not maintain easily-accessible records on pardons and the webpage for the Governor’s Clemency Office is not up-to-date.

Compared to some of the other men who have been wrongfully convicted and later released from prison, Bridges is lucky. He got a pardon.

After his pardon of innocence from McCrory, Bridges was able to receive compensation from the state and eventually reached a $9.5 million settlement with the City of Charlotte.

None of that likely would have happened without the pardon.

“He pardoned me because he knew what was right and what was wrong,” Bridges said of McCrory.

Other men wait for pardons

There are currently four men waiting for a pardon of innocence, including Ronnie Long, who was released from prison in late August after spending 44 years for a rape in Concord he didn’t commit.

Long was released from prison after decades of legal proceedings that ended with his conviction being vacated and the charges dropped.

Despite that, he’s still not considered ‘innocent’ in the eyes of the State of North Carolina without a pardon from the governor.

“He served 44-plus years in North Carolina for a crime he didn’t commit; in a case that the Fourth Circuit (Court of Appeals) has described as egregious and continuous state misconduct. And, yet, he’ll get nothing for it if the governor doesn’t grant a pardon of innocence,” Long’s attorney, Jamie Lau of the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic, explained.

Without a pardon, Long and the three other innocent men that have been released from prison who are awaiting a ruling on their clemency applications, cannot get any of the compensation Bridges got.

And, Lau said, the prospects of getting a pardon from Governor Roy Cooper are grim.

“Presently, it’s impossible to obtain any sort of relief from the current administration,” Lau said.

Lau said the governor’s office hasn’t given any response to the four men who have applied for pardons and, in fact, won’t even release a full list of people who have filed clemency applications.

“He’ll be the first governor in more than 40 years to go through a term without granting clemency to a single person,” Lau said of Cooper, if he doesn’t take any action by the end of December.

Cooper’s inaction in the Long case continued even after 14 Democrats elected to the state house and senate wrote him urging a pardon.

“I’m a progressive individual,” the law professor said. “Roy Cooper is supposed to be representing me and other progressive individuals who want to see the criminal justice system do better.”

Charlotte attorney David Rudolf, who represented Tim Bridges in his civil case against the state and City of Charlotte after he was pardoned, said Cooper’s refusal to act on pardons of innocence is a stark contrast to his predecessor.

"I can say that Gov. McCrory—whatever his faults, I’m not here to defend him or attack him—was exceptionally open to have pardons of innocence considered by his staff and by his office.

Rudolf represents others who have been exonerated, too, and recently launched a podcast highlighting similar cases across the country.

“It may not seem like a lot to most people but if you spent a decade, two decades, three decades, four decades in prison for something you didn’t do and to have the governor say we’re sorry for what you went through, it’s extraordinarily powerful,” Rudolf said. “That has changed, unfortunately, since Governor Cooper.”

Rudolf said he knows attorneys for two of the men currently awaiting a pardon of innocence have tried to arrange meetings with Cooper like the meeting Bridges had with McCrory.

“Both have run into stone walls,” Rudolf said.

“My hope in, really, speaking to you is to say to Roy, ‘Roy, this is something you should be looking at.’ I respect Roy as a person and my hope, really, is Roy will look into this and at least rule on these things.”

Cooper’s office did not acknowledge or otherwise respond to multiple emails seeking an interview for this story and a WBTV reporter was not allowed to ask Cooper a question during a virtual press conference on Wednesday.

The fight to have innocent men freed

Before an innocent person can even be considered for a pardon, though, they have to be exonerated and released from prison.

In North Carolina, that can either happen by legal proceedings in court—like the process that exonerated Tim Bridges and Ronnie Long—or a person can be declared innocent by a three-judge panel initiated through the North Carolina Innocence Commission.

If a person is declared innocent by a three-judge panel, they are automatically entitled to compensation from the state. That’s not the case if a person is exonerated through other legal proceedings.

In either path, lawyers and those who believe they have been wrongfully convicted must go through years of work to gather evidence that proves their innocence.

“Do you see these brick marks on my forehead? That’s from beating my head against the wall. It is incredibly hard,” attorney Chris Mumma, who runs the NC Center on Actual Innocence, said of the work it takes to prove a person’s innocence.

“It’s absolutely increasingly difficult,” she said. “I think there’s a number of reasons for it. Even in the 20 years I’ve been doing it, it’s become harder.”

Mumma said one of the main obstacles she frequently faces is resistance from district attorneys or the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, who, she said, has increasingly handled post-conviction relief cases in place of local prosecutors.

“The response from the AG’s Office has actually been worse in cases where we have dealt with them rather than district attorneys,” Mumma said, referring to cases she’s had against the AG’s Office under Mike Easley, Roy Cooper and, now, Josh Stein.

One of the main ways Mumma said the attorney general’s office impedes innocence cases is by withholding access to evidence gathered in criminal investigation. Access to that evidence, Mumma said, can be critical to helping prove someone received an unfair trial or is actually innocent.

“The starting point is ‘you’re not entitled to anything, we’re not giving you anything and we’re going to battle you all the way through,’” she said.

A spokeswoman for current Attorney General Josh Stein issued the following statement in response to questions for this story:

“The office of Attorney General Josh Stein is committed to pursuing justice in every case. Our lawyers do not instruct District Attorneys to withhold evidence pre- or post-conviction; we do not oppose testing DNA post-conviction in any capital case; we advise District Attorneys to permit testing DNA post-conviction in other cases consistent with state law; and we do not intentionally work to keep innocent people behind bars. Additionally, Stein is working hard to reform our criminal justice system. He’s leading the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice to make our criminal justice system fairer for all.”

But Mumma disagreed.

“I have met with the AG’s Office and they have specifically said ‘we are not going to encourage post-conviction discovery. Period.’ So it’s backwards,” she said.

“Their job is not to fight every claim. Their job is to ensure justice has been achieved for the guilty and the innocent.”

Mumma continues fighting to free clients she said are innocent but still in prison. While she and other lawyers like Lau continue to work, their clients are missing holidays, birthdays and the death of loved ones.

“It was hard. I mean, it was really hard,” Tim Bridges, who was wrongfully convicted, said of his time spend in prison. “You know, right now, I’ve got PTSD so bad. And if it wasn’t for the pardon money I wouldn’t have what I have now.”

Today, Bridges is married to his high school sweetheart and runs a charter fishing business. But there are some things lost to his time locked away—like missing the death of his mother—that the money can’t replace.

“I spent 25 years in prison. That little bit of money there didn’t mean nothing. They can’t pay for the time they took from me. I won’t ever forgive them, never. It’s going to be hard for me to live knowing that they took my life from my family.”

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