Innocent prisoners program allows Duke, K to give back, teaches powerful life lessons

By Michael Smith

During a Duke basketball practice earlier this season, Mike Krzyzewski called his players over to a corner of the court where two visitors were standing. Their names were Henry McCollum and Ronnie Long, and they had spent a combined 75 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

After the Duke coach introduced the two men to the team, he began talking about the power of never giving up. McCollum and Long stood before them as two powerful living examples.

Coach K with Henry McCollum, 30 years wrongly incarcerated on death row. Exonerated on Sept. 2, 2014. Pardon of Innocence in June 2015.courtesy of Duke

Then Krzyzewski had the men say a few words, and McCollum, a longtime Duke fan, even during his incarceration, spoke to playing together and supporting one another when times get tough. That support extends beyond the scoreboard.

It was a surreal moment for McCollum and Long, neither of whom ever figured to taste freedom again, much less address the Duke players and subsequently attend a game in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Practice is a sacred time for most coaches, including Krzyzewski, but he has occasionally opened his practices and locker rooms to exonerated prisoners who have been released and granted their freedom.

Two Duke law professors, Jim Coleman and Jamie Lau, initiated the visits through a program called the Wrongful Convictions Clinic. The clinic operates within Duke Law School, and it investigates plausible claims of innocence in North Carolina. Coleman directs the clinic, and Lau is its practicing attorney. They typically work on five to 10 cases at any given time. 

They’ve seen firsthand how inspired these former prisoners have been from a little special treatment from the Blue Devils’ legendary coach, who is in his final season.

Coach K with Ronnie Long, 43 years wrongly incarcerated. Exonerated August 27, 2020. Pardon of Innocence in December 2020.courtesy of Duke

“They could have never imagined being able to have a bucket list experience like this,” Coleman said. “We never give up — that’s our approach to what we do. So, for these guys to be recognized at a practice for their perseverance, it means a lot to them. And it’s quite special that Coach K would take the time to make it happen.”

When the attorneys arrived with McCollum and Long that day, they were walking down a hallway toward the practice court and came upon Krzyzewski.

“Hi, I’m Mike,” Krzyzewski said without a hint of pretense.

Krzyzewski, a first-generation college student who went to West Point, has made it a priority to not just elevate the Blue Devils and the university, but also Durham. The Emily K Center, named for his mother, is built on the concepts of aiding students from both an academic and leadership perspective.

“It’s a powerful thing when you understand that people believe in you and care about your experience,” Lau said. “For Ronnie and Henry, it’s easy to believe that people have given up on you and that they don’t care what’s happened to them.

“For Coach K to open up his practice like that, it really solidifies how generous and thoughtful he is. He’s a person who can be deeply touched by people’s stories.”

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