By Ruthie Kesri
Gov. Roy Cooper announced in late December he would be issuing pardons of innocence to five men he believed were innocent, serving time for crimes they did not commit.
Cooper’s actions allow for those five men to apply to receive compensation from the state for each year they were wrongly imprisoned. In a statement, the governor expressed an intention to “work to reform our justice system and acknowledge when people have been wrongly convicted,” and that, “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.”
A pardon of innocence is unique to other types of pardons because it opens the door for the wrongfully convicted to receive up to $750,000 in compensation from the North Carolina Industrial Commission.
“It’s really important that these men are compensated and compensated quickly as to provide them with some additional security, but they now also have access to resources that can help them work through the trauma that results from wrongful convictions,” said Professor Jamie Lau at Duke Law, who represented one of the individuals who was pardoned, Ronnie Long.
Long was accused of raping a prominent white widow in Concord more than 45 years ago when he was only 20 years old. His attorneys later proved that the more than 40 fingerprints collected from the scene were not a match to their client and were never shared at trial.
Long, who was convicted by an all-white jury, was released from prison in late August. Cooper could have granted his pardon of innocence at any point during his gubernatorial tenure but waited until the last month before his second term to do so.
“The trauma of these wrongful convictions lasts a good period,” said Lau. “[Among the pardoned men] there’s been a lot of personal struggles as a result of inadequate support received after their innocence had been demonstrated, including periods of homelessness that had a very hard impact not only on the individual himself but his family.”
In addition to Long, the other men pardoned by Cooper are Teddy Isbell Sr., Kenneth Kagonyera, Damian Mills, and Larry Williams Jr.
Those four men served time for a murder-robbery that took place in Asheville in September 2000. Their sentences ranged from 5.5 years in prison to 15 years.
“In 2011, [Mr. Kagonyera] was granted innocence by the Innocence Commission along with one of his co-defendants,” said Abraham Rubert-Schewel, the attorney at Tin Fulton who represented Kagonyera. “They both then petitioned the Industrial Commission for compensation... But while Kenny’s petition for compensation was pending, the statute was amended to say that if you plead guilty, you could not receive state compensation.”
Kagonyera, who initially pleaded guilty under police coercion and who was already exonerated for wrongful conviction, was rendered unable to receive compensation for his wrongful conviction.
In 2015, a judge concluded that all charges for the three other men should be dismissed due to problems and inconsistencies related to their prosecution coupled with evidence proving their innocence. The people who were allegedly responsible for the crime were identified through an investigation by the Innocence Inquiry Commission.
The pardons issued in December marked the first time that Cooper used his clemency power in his nearly four years serving as governor of North Carolina.
“Most people think he did that because he was waiting until he was re-elected,” said Rubert-Schewel. “He didn’t want to risk any political capital on these cases.”
If he had not exercised that power, Cooper would have become the first North Carolina governor in more than 40 years to complete a term without granting a single pardon or act of clemency.
“[In regards to changemaking], lawyers should play an assisting role to organizers,” said Rubert-Schewel.
Cooper faced public pressure from the ACLU of North Carolina, which has staged sit-ins urging the Governor to employ his clemency power to release some of the nearly 36,000 incarcerated people sitting in jails in North Carolina, which are hotspots for the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of Decarcerate Now NC organized daily vigils outside the Governor’s mansion for weeks, protesting for racial justice and equity.
“I don’t think the legal system will ever really be equipped to handle [wrongful convictions] and deal with it on its own,” said Rubert-Schewel. “People like Kenny, when they get out of jail, need all sorts of support that I can’t provide. But as to what the legal system can do at a minimum is clear some of the hurdles it takes for exonerated people to be compensated.”
Read Kagonyera's successful petition for clemency below.
Ruthie Kesri is an undergraduate student at Duke University working this semester with the Wilson Center for Science and Justice.