Outgoing N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue did the right thing in pardoning the Wilmington 10 on Monday. A federal appeals court threw out their convictions in 1980, citing gross prosecutorial misconduct and perjury. Two years earlier, then Gov. Jim Hunt had already commuted their sentences.
Still, the nine black men and one white woman who had who received prison sentences totaling nearly 300 years for the firebombing of Wilmington grocery store in 1971 deserved better. They were wrongly convicted. The pardon of innocence Perdue issued means the state no longer believes the 10 four of whom have died committed a crime.
Charlotte attorney and well-known civil rights litigator James Ferguson was among several people and organizations pushing for the pardon. Ferguson represented the Wilmington 10 at their trial. Of their conviction, he said recently: All of these young people, with the exception of two or three, were in high school. And their lives were devastated by this prosecution and this conviction. And even now, many of them are still affected by it. Some of them are deceased and their lives were lived under the cloud of this case even though the court ultimately overturned the conviction.
Perdue said she issued the pardons after reviewing the facts and being appalled by the manner in which their convictions were obtained.
Among those facts? The three key witnesses who took the stand for the prosecution recanted their testimony in 1976. And the prosecutor, Jay Stroud, reportedly racially profiled prospective jurors. Newly uncovered notes suggest that Stroud tried to keep blacks off the first jury and seat whites he thought were sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan. At the top of the list of 100 jurors, the notes said, stay away from black men. A capital B was beside the names of black jurors. The notes identify one potential black juror as an Uncle Tom type, and beside the names of several white people, notations include KKK? and good!!
This conduct is disgraceful, Perdue said. 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.
Of the surviving Wilmington 10, Benjamin Chavis, the former national NAACP executive director, is the most well known. He spent about five years in jail and prison before his release. On Monday, he expressed gratitude to Perdue and called the day historic.
Other survivors include Reginald Epps, James McKoy, Wayne Moore, Marvin Patrick and Willie Earl Vereen. Those who have died are Jerry Jacobs, Ann Shepard, Connie Tindall and Joe Wright.
In the late 1970s, CBS 60 Minutes exposed much of the evidence against the Wilmington 10 as fabricated by prosecutors. Amnesty International declared the group political prisoners
It should not have taken so long for North Carolina to right this wrong. But as the cliché goes, better late than never. We applaud Perdue for getting it done.