Forty years after the wrongful convictions of the “Wilmington 10,” North Carolina outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue (D) pardoned the ten individuals falsely found guilty of having firebombed a grocery store in a racially charged case riddled with evidence of perjury by crucial witnesses, overt racism in jury selection, and withholding of exonerating information. The sentence of a total of 282 years in prison for the ten individuals, nine of whom were African American and most of whom were activists in their teens at the time, prompted international outcry. The activist who received the harshest sentence, Benjamin Chavis, later became the executive director of the NAACP. Although an appeals court overturned the convictions in 1980, civil rights groups and others have been vocal in calls for official state recognition of error in the case a recent New York Times editorial called “one of the more shameful episodes on North Carolina history.” Reuters explains:
“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,” Perdue said. “Justice demands that this stain finally be removed.”
Wilmington, an historic port city on North Carolina’s coast, was gripped by racial tension in the years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination and the desegregation of schools.
Violence erupted on February 6, 1971, when demonstrators set off firebombs in the city’s downtown. Firefighters who responded to the blaze set at a grocery store were met with sniper fire.
Authorities blamed the Wilmington 10 for the grocery fire and for conspiring to attack the emergency workers. They were tried and convicted the following year. [...]
Last month, Perdue received the handwritten notes of the prosecutor who picked the group’s jury, and the records showed racism had played a dominant role in the process, she said on Monday.
“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,’” Perdue said. “This conduct is disgraceful.”
Perdue issued the pardons Monday as she exits a term in office marked by dogged battles with the state’s conservative legislature on attempts to roll back environmental protection, workers’ rights, and reproductive rights. Even after the court reversal, some opponents reportedly lobbied against the issuance of pardons, arguing for a standard of justice by which defendants are guilty until proven innocent:
[A] group calling itself Citizens for Justice took out a quarter-page ad in the Wilmington Star News, asking Purdue not to grant pardons to the Wilmington Ten, essentially because, they say, it has never been proven that the nine black males and one white female civil rights activists didn’t conspire to firebomb a white-owned grocery store in February 1971, and fire weapons on responding fire and police personnel from a church steeple.
Retired white Wilmington police officers, and even former prosecutor Jay Stroud, have told Wilmington media that the Ten are guilty …
Both state governors and the president possess the power to mitigate harsh or unjust punishments by shortening sentences through a commutation, or invalidating convictions entirely through a pardon. Perdue’s pardons of the already-released individuals was a symbolic rejection of the state’s racially charged prosecution. But most pardons and commutations are sought in cases in which inmates continue to serve their time. In spite of evidence of individuals serving life sentences for their nominal and nonviolent role in drug deals, and the continued U.S. practice of mass incarceration, President Obama did not issue a single pardon or commutation in 2012.