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'I’ve been crying happy tears' | A man who maintained his innocence for 44 years to be freed from prison

Ronnie Long has spent 44 years in prison for a rape he says he didn’t commit.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A Concord man who has been fighting for his freedom for over four decades will be freed from prison, his attorney announced Wednesday.

The State of North Carolina filed a motion Wednesday with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate Ronnie Long's 1976 conviction. They're asking the court to issue the mandate immediately.

In just a matter of days now, Long will finally walk out of prison — he spent 44 years behind bars proclaiming his innocence. The state of North Carolina, which put him there and kept him there, finally agreed.

Long has spent 44 years in prison for a rape he says he didn’t commit. 

Jamie Lau, Long's attorney from the Innocence Project, announced Wednesday the State of North Carolina filed a motion with the Fourth Circuit asking them to immediately issue the mandate in Long’s case. 

Lau broke the news to Long Wednesday morning. 

"He was emotional," Lau said. "You could hear the happiness through the phone, he was laughing a little bit with disbelief."

That sense of disbelief is because there have been so many legal hurdles for so many years, even with proof that police lied on the stand and hid evidence that ruled Long out.

"We're grateful that the end appears near," Lau said.

An all-white jury in Concord convicted Long back in 1976. He’s spent 44 years in prison for a rape he has always insisted he didn’t commit and on Monday, a federal appeals court handed down a ruling that the lower court had violated long’s rights, pointing out a pattern of extreme and continuous police misconduct.

That decision prompted the state Wednesday to file a motion that will vacate Long’s conviction. That means the case is over, Long is a free man.

"The state said it will ask the district court to enter a writ vacating Ronnie’s conviction," Lau said. "While it will take some time for the courts to do what is needed to vacate the conviction, the State has set in motion a process that will lead to Ronnie's freedom."

Three of the judges with the federal appeals court said they believed Long is innocent and had his rights violated. 

Those judges said the case should be closed based on what they saw as “extreme and continuous police misconduct” — that included lab tests that show Long was “not linked to the crime scene in any way.”

"Liberty means something you don’t just take away a person's freedom it means something," Judge James Wynn said at the time.

Wynn was one of the 15 judges of the fourth circuit federal appeals court who heard arguments about whether to overturn Ronnie Long’s conviction.

Procedural steps remain but once the conviction is vacated, Long would be released.

"He grateful, overwhelmed, and looks forward to reuniting with his loved ones," Lau said Wednesday.

"I've been crying happy tears it's amazing," Long's wife Ashleigh told WCNC Charlotte's Michelle Boudin. "It seems surreal."

Long has spent 44 years in prison. He believes he was convicted because he’s Black.

RELATED: 'This is the epitome of injustice' | NC NAACP president calls for immediate release of Ronnie Long

An all-White jury heard the case back in 1976, at a time when racial tensions ran high in Concord. Judge Wynn, who grew up in Concord, previously said, “There were Black men being prosecuted wrongfully.”

Lau says his appeal is simple: based largely on the fact Concord Police detectives hid evidence that pointed to another suspect. Van Isenhour was one of those detectives.

"The defendant did not receive a fair trial," Lau previously told WCNC Charlotte.

Phillip Rubin, the attorney for the state of North Carolina, previously argued there was not enough to overturn Long’s conviction.

“Because of the totality of this record, and how it demonstrates the jury's verdict of guilty, [the sentence] would be unchanged by the undisclosed evidence in this case," Rubin said.

But several judges seemed to disagree: questioning the victim's accusation of Long, questioning much of the physical evidence in the case, and the way the evidence was handled.

Judge Barbara Keenan said, “Please don’t ignore what I see to be the elephant in the room. Detective Isenhour lied on the stand.”

Long's attorney Jamie Lau said based on the decision Monday, it appears its in everyone's best interest to complete the process quickly.

"The State indicated to me when we discussed the motion they were filing that given the decision on Monday it's in the interest of justice and in everyone’s interest to move this quickly and to do what needs to be done to get the conviction vacated for Ronnie to be free," Lau said.

WCNC Charlotte's Michelle Boudin asked Lau how he broke the news to Long that after 44 years, it was all coming to an end.

"I said Ronnie it's over," Lau said. "He said, 'What do you mean by that?' Once he understood it meant his freedom was on the horizon he was joyous."

Previous coverage on the Ronnie Long case: