Published in 2024 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
By Emma Way on December 26, 2023
Behind every civil rights case, and every major moment, in Chris Olson’s nearly 30-year legal career, he has a long list of credits.
There are legendary attorneys like James “Fergie” Ferguson, Burton Craige, Hoyt Tessener, David Rudolf and Sonya Pfeiffer who have acted as both inspiration and aid for his work. There are the leaders in exonerating wrongly incarcerated North Carolinians like Jamie Lau and Jim Coleman with the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic and Chris Mumma with North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence. “Really brilliant folks,” Olson says.
Then there are the clients who make the work worth doing, he says.
The work is about people like Ronnie Long, Dwayne Dail, and Greg Taylor, who spent decades in prison after being wrongly convicted of crimes.
The work is about North Carolina families—“just salt-of-the-earth, honest, hard-working people,” Olson says—that were misled by banks into predatory mortgages in the early 2000s.
And the work is about Olson’s own daughter who just wants to play soccer with her friends, but is barred from doing so by North Carolina’s recent anti-transgender legislation.
Olson’s parents met at Duke University, where they had Chris, their eldest son of two. They settled into a middle-class neighborhood in Charlotte. Olson’s father worked in sales for a welding supply company, and his mother did secretarial work at a medical office.
Charlotte was growing at a rapid clip in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and he thinks fondly of his childhood and his time at West Charlotte High School. “That was a good experience,” says Olson, who is white, of going to high school in a predominantly Black neighborhood. “To go places and, at least for that moment, recognize you’re different. It was humbling in a good way.”
Olson first considered a career in law as a student at the University of North Carolina. To him, the justice system seemed to reward preparation. “It seemed like if you work hard, you can get to an even playing field,” he says. “It shouldn’t matter who your parents are or where you come from. Once you enter the courthouse, everything is supposed to be equal. At least that’s the ideal. Reality is something short of that.
“I wanted to do some good,” he says.
That realization was a turning point for him as a college junior. He buckled down on his studies and went on to attend Campbell University School of Law, then located in Buies Creek, where he graduated magna cum laude.
It’s been nearly a decade since Olson first met Ronnie Long at Harnett Correctional Institution in Lillington, North Carolina, while working as a volunteer with the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic. Long had been convicted of a 1976 rape and burglary in Concord. He was sentenced to two life terms by an all-white jury.
Olson says he knew from the first meeting that Long was innocent. “There was no question in my mind. You could see it in his eyes, hear it in his words, just the complete candor.”
It took years, but the lawyers and students with the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic proved Long’s wrongful conviction, securing his release. “[It was] a lot of hard work and persistence by those convinced of his innocence—the faculty and students at the Duke Wrongul Convictions Clinic and before them the UNC Innocence Project with Donna Bennick and Janine Zanin,” Olson says. “They just kept pushing and prodding to get evidence that had been withheld to slowly be unearthed over 30 years.” After 44 years, three months and 17 days, Long walked out of Albemarle Correctional Institution a free man. Now Olson and Charlotte-based attorney David Rudolf are working on his post-exoneration civil rights claims.
“In Ronnie’s case, I knew there were blatant civil rights violations,” he says of the case, which was pending at press time. “My hope is he’s going to get some form of justice, some way, somehow, imperfect as it may be.”
All exonerees have a challenging road ahead after walking out of those prison gates. In the first few days, there’s all this jubilation, Olson says. Long-awaited hugs. Celebratory headlines in the newspapers. Home-cooked meals, family reunions and new beginnings.
“Then comes the reckoning. That’s the part the public doesn’t see.”
For years, exonerees were told when to sleep, when to eat, when they can feel the warm Carolina sun. Those forced habits are traumatic and walking free from prison isn’t a “magic bullet,” Olson says. “For someone who has been deprived of freedom for decades, it can be overwhelming and frightening.”
But Long soldiers on, Olson says. “He faces struggles, but I have great faith in him and great respect and admiration for him as a person—and for everything he overcame and went through.”
Olson’s heart has always been with the “little guy.”
Toward the beginning of his career, he worked at a large law firm on the defense side. But he knew he’d always find his way to the plaintiff side.
“I wanted to do whatever I could to help give real people a fair shake,” he says. “And the truth is, at the end of the day, I wanted to feel good about what I had done and who I was working for.”
That includes suing one of the biggest banks in the country.
Bank of America has one of the most visible brands in all of Charlotte. It’s one of the largest employers. The Carolina Panthers play at Bank of America Stadium, and at 871 feet, Bank of America Corporate Center and its recognizable crown-like top towers over the rest of Charlotte’s buildings.
Twenty years ago, Olson took on the giant in a class-action lawsuit representing families from across North Carolina who were unlawfully sold credit insurance, which dramatically increased their mortgage costs. Many were on the brink of losing their homes.
“I can picture their kitchens,” he says now. “These were modest homes, and we would sit at their kitchen table, and I would go through their loan documents with them.”
In the case of the credit insurance product, Olson says, families were “paying through the nose for something that may not ever provide any benefit, or at most, minimal benefit.” These subprime mortgages were the foundation of the global financial crisis and economic recession between 2007 and 2010, and Olson’s class action lawsuit was just one of many across the country that led to banks paying out millions in compensation. “Ours was just a small subset of the financial abuses that were ongoing,” he says.
Olson says this case, and others like it, would not have been successful had it not been for his clients, those families huddled around the table with him.
A common tactic in class action suits is for a defendant to make a settlement offer for just the class representations, Olson says. “You can imagine a scenario where there’s an offer on the table to somebody who has $9 in their checking account, and there’s an offer to pay off their home,” he says. “Imagine a scenario where I convey that offer and the person says, ‘What about the others? What are they going to do for the rest of them.’”
The answer would be: nothing.
And instead of taking those thousands or tens of thousands for their personal benefit, the families stuck together. “If they’re not going to do right by all of us, I don’t want their money,” Olson says, recalling the representatives’ sentiment.
Richardson v. Bank of America settled for $38.75 million in 2008, awarded to low-income borrowers across the state. That same year, Olson represented homeowners against Commercial Credit Loan, Inc. all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court. It resolved for $42.5 million.
Olson isn’t sure how much longer North Carolina can be his home.
He and his wife have two daughters: ages 13 and 11. The oldest loves to ride horses and has a great sense of humor, Olson says. “She’s happiest when she’s outdoors or in the barn with horses.” The youngest is an avid soccer player and always looks for the good in people, Olson says.
His youngest daughter is transgender. “She’s seen the headlines about the recent legislation in North Carolina,” Olson says. “She has a full understanding of what that means for her and our family.”
North Carolina law now includes a slew of bills restricting the rights of LGBTQ+ members, including a ban on gender-affirming medical care for minors and a ban on transgender girls playing on girls’ sports teams.
“She wishes she could just talk to the people responsible for those laws and explain why this is wrong,” Olson says of his daughter. “I love that sweetness and determination, and maybe she’s right. Maybe that’s what it would take.”
Olson looks down for a moment and takes a deep breath. Around his wrist is a colorful beaded bracelet that reads “I [heart] Dad,” a gift from his eldest. “[The legislation] makes me very angry,” he says, “but I don’t want my kids to see that. I want them to see determination and resolve and looking for the good in people.”
One day, Olson says he could see himself taking on these laws in court, but for right now, family is his top priority. He just wants his daughter to be able to play soccer with her friends and receive medical treatment like any other child. “I’m not yet actively involved,” in a case, he says, “but I have put my name out there as somebody willing to volunteer time toward that effort.”
The family is considering a move to the Boston area, but even if they decide to move, Olson will keep his practice in North Carolina. The idea of moving is scary for his daughters. There’s some angst, he says. “North Carolina is the only home they’ve known. It wouldn’t be severing all ties from North Carolina, but if we go through with this, Massachusetts would be their home.”
For the transgender community in North Carolina, Olson says, justice looks like acceptance.
“She just wants to be a kid,” says Olson. “Yes, she is transgender, but she wants you to know her just as a kid who loves soccer and Pokémon.”
In the case of people like Ronnie Long, no one can give him back 44 years or give him back time with his parents during their final days. Those harms done to those now exonerated cannot be undone.
“What we strive for is to make things as right as they can be given where we are,” Olson says.
Meet a few of the exonerees Olson has worked with in post-exoneration civil rights cases.
Case: Long was 20 years old when he was wrongly accused of rape and burglary in Concord in 1976 and sentenced to two life terms in prison by an all-white jury.
Released: August 27, 2020 after 44 years in prison. Governor Roy Cooper granted a pardon of innocence a few months later.
Team: Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic
Civil suit resolution: Pending
Case: Dail was 20 years old when he was sentenced to life after he was wrongly accused for the rape of a 12-year-old girl in Goldsboro. After nearly two decades, the Goldsboro Police Department discovered evidence that had been incorrectly stored. That evidence confirmed Dail’s innocence and identified the true perpetrator.
Released: August 28, 2007 after 18 years in prison.
Team: North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence
Civil suit resolution: $7.5 million
Case: State Bureau of Investigation agents fabricated evidence that led to Taylor’s murder conviction.
Released: February 17, 2010 after nearly 17 years in prison.
Team: Chris Mumma and the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence
Civil suit resolution: $4.625 million
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