Members of the “Wilmington 10” hold a brief communion service before boarding a prison bus on Feb. 2, 1976 in Burgaw, North Carolina, as they surrendered to start prison terms on convictions growing out of 1971 racial disorders in Wilmington, N.C. Four of the group shown from left are Connie Tindall, Rev. Ben Chavis, Jerry Jacobs and Anne Sheppard. (AP Photo)
After decades of claims that they were wrongly convicted, nine African-American men and one white women who were imprisoned for an arson fire in North Carolina that stemmed from racial unrest over integrated schools have been pardoned. North Carolina Gov. Bev Purdue, who is leaving office in just one week, issued the pardons Monday.
Purdue’s office issued a statement, saying she had spent “a great deal of time over the past seven months reviewing the pardon of innocence requests of the persons collectively known as the Wilmington Ten.”
“This topic evokes strong opinions from many North Carolinians as it hearkens back to a very difficult time in our state’s past,” Purdue’s statement continued, calling the era “a period of racial tensions and violence that represents a dark chapter in North Carolina’s history. These cases generate a great deal of emotion from people who lived through these traumatic events.”
“In evaluating these petitions for clemency, it is important to separate fact from rumor and innuendo. I have decided to grant these pardons because the more facts I have learned about the Wilmington Ten, the more appalled I have become about the manner in which their convictions were obtained,” Purdue’s statement continued (full statement at the end of this post.)
Many civil liberties and civil rights groups, including Amnesty International, had called for a pardon for the “Wilmington 10,” who were convicted for an arson fire at a white-owned grocery store in a black section of Wilmington, North Carolina in 1971. The fire came as tensions raged in the community over the integration of local schools. Firefighters were shot as they fought the blaze. The ten, some of whom were just teenagers at the time, were convicted of arson and conspiracy, though all denied having anything to do with the crimes.
Gov. Rick Hunt commuted the ten’s sentences in 1978, as their cases were being appealed, but the convictions continued to dog the group, many of whom reportedly had difficulty getting their lives on track.
The latest to call for pardons in the case was MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry, who issued an open letter to Purdue on her MSNBC show on Saturday.
“As you know, in 1972, nine young African-American men and one white woman were wrongly convicted of firebombing a Wilmington grocery store during civil rights protests. Most of the Wilmington Ten were just teenagers at the time. But despite shaky evidence, the young musicians, students and activists were sentenced to a total of 282 years in prison,” Harris-Perry said.
“Gov. Perdue you once stated that “there’s nobody in America…who could say that trial was fair or that there wasn’t some kind of undercurrent or overt racism involved in the jury selection,” Harris-Perry continued. “Indeed, it was so overt that by 1977, at least three witnesses had recanted their testimony. And in 1980, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the convictions of the Wilmington Ten–noting that the chief witness lied on the stand and that prosecutors concealed evidence.”
Apparently, appeals like Harris-Perry’s worked, and the ten, including civil rights leader Rev. Ben Chavis, have received full pardons. The move comes too late for four of the ten, who have died.
According to the News & Observer:
In 1980, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions citing prosecutorial misconduct and denials of due process, but the charges of four decades ago lingered. State prosecutors did not seek a new trial, but there was no acquittal, either.
This year, in a movement spurred by Ben Chavis, who went to Wilmington as head of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice and ended up among those arrested, the NAACP and other advocates for the Wilmington 10 appealed to the governor for a pardon.
The trial of the Wilmington 10 was tainted by racial bias and key testimony was recanted. It was a case borne in an era of racial confrontation over school integration and civil rights.
Recently, Tim Tyson, a North Carolina writer and historian, uncovered notes from the prosecutor in the case. The notes include the prosecutor’s efforts to select a favorable jury based on race. When the prosecutor failed in the first instance – the selected jury was two whites and 10 blacks – his notes written on the back of a legal pad indicate he feigned illness to cause a mistrial and succeeded. The second trial had a jury of 10 whites and two blacks and it produced the conviction that was tossed out.
Read the full statement from Gov. Bev Purdue below.Gov. Perdue Issues Pardon of Innocence for Wilmington 10
Raleigh – Gov. Bev Perdue today signed a Pardon of Innocence for the Wilmington 10 and issued the following statement:
“I have spent a great deal of time over the past seven months reviewing the pardon of innocence requests of the persons collectively known as the Wilmington Ten. This topic evokes strong opinions from many North Carolinians as it hearkens back to a very difficult time in our state’s past, a period of racial tensions and violence that represents a dark chapter in North Carolina’s history. These cases generate a great deal of emotion from people who lived through these traumatic events.
In evaluating these petitions for clemency, it is important to separate fact from rumor and innuendo. I have decided to grant these pardons because the more facts I have learned about the Wilmington Ten, the more appalled I have become about the manner in which their convictions were obtained.
In 1980, a federal appeals court overturned the convictions in a written decision that highlighted the gross improprieties that occurred during the trial. The federal court determined as a matter of law that numerous instances of prosecutorial misconduct and other constitutional violations took place. Among other things, the court ruled that with regard to the testimony of the prosecution’s key witness – upon whose credibility the case depended entirely — “the conclusion is inescapable that [he] perjured himself” and that “this fact was bound to be known to the prosecutor . . .” The court also declared that it was undisputed that key documents had repeatedly been withheld from defense lawyers. It also found numerous errors by the trial judge that had the effect of unconstitutionally prejudicing the defendants’ ability to receive a fair trial.
Since the trial ended, the prosecution’s key witness and two supporting witnesses all independently recanted their testimony incriminating the defendants. Furthermore, last month, new evidence was made available to me in the form of handwritten notes from the prosecutor who picked the jury at trial. These notes show with disturbing clarity the dominant role that racism played in jury selection. The notes reveal that certain white jurors believed to be Ku Klux Klan members were described by the prosecutor as “good” and that at least one African American juror was noted to be an “Uncle Tom type.”
This conduct is disgraceful. It is utterly incompatible with basic notions of fairness and with every ideal that North Carolina holds dear. The legitimacy of our criminal justice system hinges on it operating in a fair and equitable manner with justice being dispensed based on innocence or guilt – not based on race or other forms of prejudice. That did not happen here. Instead, these convictions were tainted by naked racism and represent an ugly stain on North Carolina’s criminal justice system that cannot be allowed to stand any longer.
Justice demands that this stain finally be removed. The process in which this case was tried was fundamentally flawed. Therefore, as Governor, I am issuing these pardons of innocence to right this longstanding wrong.”