N.C. Governor grants pardon to 'Wilmington Ten'

Associated Press | 1/16/2013, 7:21 a.m.

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, said in her Dec. 31 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 supremacists 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 arrested 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 exposé proving that the evidence against the Wilmington Ten had been fabricated by the prosecution.

And after then N.C. Gov. James B. Hunt refused to pardon the Ten but did commute their sentences in 1978, the U.S. 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.