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Cooper issues pardons of innocence to five men

By Bryan Anderson, Associated Press/Report for America

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced Thursday the pardons of five men convicted of crimes he believes they did not commit.

Among the prisoners is Ronnie Long, who spent 44 years in prison for a rape he says he did not commit. Long was freed in August. Cooper’s actions allow him and four other ex-convicts to apply for compensation of $50,000 a year up to $750,000 for their wrongful felony convictions.

“We must continue to work to reform our justice system and acknowledge when people have been wrongly convicted,” Cooper said in a statement. “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.”

Teddy Isbell Sr., Kenneth Kagonyera, Damian Mills and Larry Williams Jr. were also pardoned.

A pardon of forgiveness is most frequently requested to absolve someone of their conviction, according to the Department of Public Safety. A pardon of innocence, however, can be granted when an individual has been convicted and the criminal charges are later dismissed. This opens the door for up to $750,000 available in compensation from the North Carolina Industrial Commission.

Long was a 20-year-old black man living in Concord when he was accused of raping a white woman. Long’s attorneys have said that more than 40 fingerprints collected from the scene were never shared and did not match Long’s. Semen samples also were never disclosed to the defense. They later disappeared.

In 2003, Isbell pled guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon. He was sentenced to serve a sentence between 5.5 and 7.5 years. A judge concluded in 2015 that all charges should be dismissed and his conviction vacated.

Kagonyera was sentenced to 12 to 15 years after he pled guilty to second-degree murder he was alleged to have committed in 2000.

Mills had a 10-to-13-year sentence after he pled guilty to second-degree murder, attempted robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon.

At age 16, Williams pled guilty to second-degree murder, which carried a sentence between about 8 and 11 years.

Kristie Puckett-Williams, statewide manager of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina’s initiative to cut the U.S. jail and prison population in half to address racial inequities, praised Cooper’s action but wants him to do more going forward.

“More can and must be done by Gov. Cooper,” said a statement from Puckett-Williams. “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. With more than 30,000 people currently incarcerated in state prisons, we urge the governor to use his executive powers further to allow redemption for those who deserve another chance and to redeem a system that continues to have a disparate impact on people of color.”

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