(CNN)A Black man was freed from a North Carolina prison on Thursday after serving 44 years for a crime he maintains he didn't commit.
Ronnie Long, wearing a dark three-piece suit, red tie and a hat, walked out of prison, wheeling his few belongings behind him. He raised his hands to the crowd and threw his arms around a loved one before addressing reporters.
"It's been a long road," Long said. "But it's over with. It's over with now."
Wearing a mask that said "Free Ronnie Long," he credited his advocates and loved ones for persevering through the long legal battle.
Long, now 64, was accused of raping a White woman. An all-White jury found him guilty of rape and burglary in 1976 and him sentenced to life in prison.
His conviction was vacated Thursday after the state of North Carolina filed a motion in federal court seeking to do so.
Since Long was convicted, "a trickle of post-trial disclosures has unearthed a troubling and striking pattern of deliberate police suppression of material evidence," US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote.
That evidence, which included semen samples and fingerprints from the crime scene that did not match Long, was deliberately withheld by law enforcement, Thacker said in the filing.
"Because of the deceit that occurred at trial, Ronnie and his counsel at the time didn't have the benefit of that evidence to present to the jury," Long's attorney, Jamie Lau, a law professor at Duke University and a faculty adviser for the Duke Law Innocence Project, told CNN. "So he's been wrongly incarcerated for 44 years."
Racial dynamics played a role
The withholding of evidence meant that Long was already facing an unfair trial, Lau said. But the racial dynamics at the time also worked against him.
Long was accused of raping a 54-year old White woman in Concord, North Carolina, on April 25, 1976. She reported that a perpetrator attacked her in her home, assaulted her and fled, according to the court filing.
About two weeks later, officers asked her to come to the courtroom and observe people who were there for other cases to see if anyone resembled her assailant, the court filing said. She ended up identifying Long, who was there on a trespassing charge, according to the filing. (The trespassing charge ended up being dismissed.)
The case was tried by an all-White jury. Every witness for the prosecution was White, while every witness for the defense was Black, Lau said.
"The cards were heavily stacked against him and a large part of that was the racial dynamics in North Carolina in the South, and in particular Concord, North Carolina, in 1976," Lau said.
Federal judges echoed that sentiment in the court filing.
"Mr. Long, a Black man, was tried in 'small town' 1970s North Carolina by an all white jury for the rape of the white widow of a prominent local business executive," Judge James Wynn of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote.
Civil rights leaders and local officials cheered Long's release, with North Carolina NAACP president Rev. Anthony Spearman calling it "the epitome of injustice."
"It is no secret that I am elated that justice has finally decided the matter of Ronnie Long," he tweeted.
"Ronnie Long suffered through 44 years of injustice," Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said. "I can't imagine the strength he and his loved ones needed to endure it."
The charges have yet to be dismissed
Long maintained his innocence and had been fighting for his freedom for years.
Wednesday's ruling does not declare Long innocent. The federal court left that question up to a lower court to decide.
Though the charges have yet to be dismissed, Lau said he's confident they will be.
"There's literally no evidence of Ronnie's responsibility for this crime," he said.
In the meantime, Long is a free man.
For his first meal out of prison, he told reporters he wanted macaroni and cheese, beef ribs, a salad and some lemonade.
Since his release, Long has been overjoyed at finally being able to reunite with loved ones, Lau said. But weighing heavily on his mind is that his mother didn't live to see this day.
It had long been her wish to see her son as a free man. She died just about six weeks before Long was released, Lau said. Her last words: "Is Ronnie home yet?"