RALEIGH, N.C. -- In what civil rights leaders across the nation are calling a “significant” moment in the civil rights movement, North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue has granted individual pardons of actual innocence to members of the Wilmington Ten.
“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,” Perdue, a Democrat who steps down on Jan. 5th, said in her Dec. 31st statement.
“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.”
The Wilmington Ten – nine black males and one white female – were activists who, along with hundreds of black students in the New Hanover County Public School System, protested rampant racial discrimination there in 1971.
In February 1971, after the arrival of Rev. Benjamin Chavis to help lead the protests, racial violence erupted, with white supremacist driving through Wilmington’s black community, fatally shooting people and committing arson.
A white-owned grocery store in the black community was firebombed, and firemen came under sniper fire. It wasn’t until a year later that Rev. Chavis and the others were round up and charged with conspiracy in connection with the firebombing and shootings.
The Ten were falsely convicted, and sentenced to 282 years in prison, some of which they all served.
It wouldn’t be until 1977, after years of failed appeals in North Carolina courts, that the three state’s witnesses all recanted their testimonies, admitting that they perjured themselves.
Amnesty International issued a blistering report declaring the Wilmington Ten “political prisoners of conscience.” The CBS News program “60 Minutes” did a one-hour expose’ proving that the evidence against the Wilmington Ten had been fabricated by the prosecution.
And after then NC Gov. James B. Hunt refused to pardon the Ten, but did commute their sentences in 1978, two years later, the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned all of the convictions, based on gross prosecutorial misconduct and various violations of constitutional rights.
The appeals court directed North Carolina to either retry the defendants, or dismiss all charges, but the state did nothing for the past 32 years.
In March 2011, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, at the urging of Wilmington Journal publisher Mary Alice Thatch, voted to pursue pardons of innocence for the Wilmington Ten. That effort got underway in earnest in January 2012, and after a series of NNPA stories based on an investigation that revealed never-before-seen court records proving prosecutorial corruption, the mainstream media – including The New York Times, The News and Observer, The Wilmington StarNews and MSNBC’s Prof. Melissa Harris-Perry – caught on, and began editorially pushing for pardoning the Wilmington Ten.
Change.org, the NAACP and The Wilmington Journal garnered over 144,000 petition signatures for the cause.
Gov. Perdue’s pardons legally mean that the accused did not commit the crimes they were convicted of.
The governor’s decision was roundly hailed.
“Gov. Perdue’s historic action today doesn’t remove the past forty years of injustice against ten innocent American citizens – North Carolinians who stood up for equal treatment under the law in our public education system,” the Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project, a justice outreach effort of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and the Wilmington Journal newspaper, said in a statement.
“But [the governor’s pardon] does correct the historical record, that Connie Tindall, Jerry Jacobs, William Joe Wright, Anne Sheppard, Wayne Moore, Marvin Patrick, James McKoy, Willie Earl Vereen, Reginald Epps and the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, were indeed innocent of all charges falsely assessed to them by a corrupt prosecutor who, to this day, has not answered for what he did.”
Governor Perdue agreed that revelations of the racist and illegal trial tactics of Wilmington Ten prosecutor Jay Stroud – which included documented handwritten evidence of seeking “KKK and Uncle Tom-type” jurors; bribing witnesses to commit perjury; hiding exculpatory evidence of a witness’s mental illness from the defense; and deliberately forcing a mistrial so that he could get both the judge and jury that would guarantee convictions – corrupt the criminal justice system, and shamed the state.
Perdue called it “naked racism.”
“This conduct is disgraceful,” the governor said in her statement. “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,” Perdue continued. “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.”
“This is a great day for the people, and the movement,” Dr. Benjamin Chavis, leader of the Wilmington Ten, told the Wilmington Journal Monday. “This is a very rare victory.”
Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton agreed.
“It was a significant victory and all of you should be commended,” Sharpton, who pushed the pardon effort on both of his radio programs last weekend, said in congratulations.
National NAACP Pres./CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous, the first national civil rights leader to support the cause, was effusive.
“This pardon brings closure to a case marred by racism and injustice,” Jealous said. “I applaud Gov. Beverly Perdue for her leadership in righting this disgraceful wrong and congratulate the NAACP North Carolina State Conference, NAACP members, and activists around the country for their work to raise awareness about this case.”
NC NAACP Pres. Rev. William Barber, who partnered with the Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence, noted the history.
“Not only will the civil rights and human rights communities honor this act, but history itself will record this day as groundbreaking,” Barber told reporters in Raleigh Monday. “On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Governor Perdue has proclaimed a contemporary emancipation for these freedom fighters.”
“These pardons are not only for North Carolina but also for the nation and for the world,” Barber continued. “We honor the Governor’s noble, courageous and righteous decision today and we commend her heart’s steadfast commitment to justice.”
For his part, former prosecutor Jay Stroud, who was disbarred in 2008, and has been arrested more than twelve times in the past six years according to the Associated Press, says that Gov. Perdue has “made a mistake.” Though he has admitted that the handwritten notes in the Wilmington Ten prosecution files are his, Stroud is now suggesting that some of them may have been forged.
“…[H]is son told The Gaston Gazette in 2011 that his father suffers from bipolar disease and that [Stroud] was diagnosed about the same time he graduated from law school,” the AP reported.
New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David, who originally found the box containing the Stroud files in a closet at his office, and turned them over to historian Duke Prof. Tim Tyson, also issued a statement.
“As prosecutors, the truth is our only client,” D.A. David wrote. “For guilty defendants, the truth hurts. For the innocent, the truth will set them free.”
“Sometimes the truth remains elusive. Where, as here, the process that was in place to search for the truth is determined to be so fundamentally flawed that we cannot know it, the verdict cannot stand the test of time. My job, as District Attorney, is to make sure that this does not happen again.”