Connie Tindall, a member of the Wilmington Ten, speaks at a press conference Thursday outside the State Capitol building in Raleigh in which the group called on Gov. Beverly Perdue to pardon them. Sitting (from left to right) are Wilmington Ten members Willie Earl Vereen; Benjamin Chavis Jr.; James McKoy; Marvin Patrick; and Willie Moore, the brother of late Wilmington 10 member Wayne Moore. Staff Photo By PATRICK GANNON/StarNews
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Published: Wednesday, December 26, 2012 at 7:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 26, 2012 at 7:26 p.m.
Before Gov. Bev Perdue leaves office, she has the opportunity to close the book on one of the ugliest chapters in recent Wilmington history: the convictions of nine black men and a white woman whose trial trampled justice and their constitutional rights. Their case is why “the Wilmington 10” are well known far beyond the confines of Southeastern North Carolina.
They were accused of firebombing of a white-owned grocery store in a black neighborhood during a period of fear and violence. Their sentences were long ago overturned, and neither they nor anyone else has since been charged.
Now they seek a pardon, the only thing that stands in the way of clearing the slate. Petitions signed by more than 14,000 people sit on the governor’s desk, and the representatives of the Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project say they will deliver 130,000 more signatures today received via the online petition website Change.org.
It has been almost 42 years since Mike’s Grocery burned at the hands of mob violence on Feb. 6, 1971, during protests that began over the school desegregation and quickly turned violent. White supremacists fueled the volatile situation by confronting black protestors and roaming armed through black neighborhoods. Residents of both races were caught in the crossfire, including the police, firefighters and emergency workers who had to brave the chaos to put out fires, both literal and figurative.
The Rev. Benjamin Chavis Jr. was brought in to help coordinate a boycott of the New Hanover County Schools over the pace and depth of court-ordered school desegregation. The defendants, who became known as the Wilmington 10, were accused of conspiracy, and arson. They received lengthy prison sentences.
After more than 40 years, it becomes harder to sort through the details to find the truth. But what is crystal clear is that justice was not done.
Their convictions were based on thin evidence that relied heavily on eyewitnesses whose credibility was in serious doubt and who received special favors in return for their testimony. Three witnesses, starting with the one who provided the most incriminating testimony, later recanted.
There is evidence that some of the members were seen elsewhere at the time of the firebombing, and a judge expunged the criminal record of one member, Joe Wright, before his death in 1990. In 1978 Gov. Jim Hunt commuted their sentences, but did not issue a pardon. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the sentences in 1980, noting that constitutional rights were violated, that the prosecutor knew or should have known that the key witness committed perjury, and that prosecution withheld information that could have helped the defense.
Now there is reason to believe that prosecutor Jay Stroud tried to keep blacks off the jury, although he told the StarNews that his notes indicating such an effort have been misinterpreted.
Perdue has a number of options, ranging from a full pardon to no action at all. No matter her decision, she will anger a portion of the community; emotions are still raw even four decades later.
But in her deliberations Perdue should be concerned only about the 10 people who did not receive a fair trial, who spent several years in prison and who have spent the rest of their lives with the shadow of that troubled time hanging over their heads.
The governor should issue the pardon because it is the right thing to do.