On her final day in office, N.C. Governor Beverly Perdue granted pardons of innocence for The Wilmington 10 on Monday (Dec. 31).
The pardon comes 40 years after the group of nine black men and one white woman were convicted, sentenced to 282 years in prison and later acquitted of offenses relating to the firebombing of a white-owned grocery store in Wilmington in 1971.
"I have spent a great deal of time over the past seven months reviewing the pardon of innocence requests of the persons collectively known as the Wilmington Ten. This topic evokes strong opinions from many North Carolinians as it hearkens back to a very difficult time in our state’s past, a period of racial tensions and violence that represents a dark chapter in North Carolina’s history," Perdue said in a statement. "In evaluating these petitions for clemency, it is important to separate fact from rumor and innuendo. 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."
The governor points to evidence that the prosecutor in the 1972 case wrote notes referring to jurors who were members of the Ku Klux Klan as "good" and described an African American juror as an "Uncle Tom type."
"This conduct is disgraceful. It is utterly incompatible with basic notions of fairness and with every ideal that North Carolina holds dear," she wrote in the statement. "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. 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."
The governor had the choice of issuing a pardon of forgiveness stating an "individual has been pardoned and forgiven of their criminal conviction" or a pardon of innocence, which is "granted when an individual has been convicted and the criminal charges are subsequently dismissed. Application for this type of Pardon allows an individual to petition the Governor for a declaration of innocence when the individual has been erroneously convicted and imprisoned and later determined to be innocent," according to the N.C. Office of Executive Clemency.
The Wilmington 10 argued for pardons of innocence because of the body of evidence including an Amnesty International report and a "60 minutes" special in 1977 that showed the prosecution paid witnesses to testify in the case. Not everyone will be happy with the pardons. In December, a group called Citizens for Justice took out a half page advertisement in the StarNews asking Governor Perdue not to grant the pardons.
On Sunday evening (Dec. 30), The Wilmington Ten Pardon of Innocence Project, a Black Press of America initiative adopted by the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) in 2011and co-chaired by Wilmington Journal publisher Mary Alice Thatch, posted a video from the Rev. Eugene Templeton who was the white pastor of the mostly African American Gregory Congregational Church in Wilmington during the 1971 incident. As the headquarters for the students protesting the closing of Williston High School, the church became the center of focus for police during the civil unrest of 1971.
A Change.org petition for the pardons netted more than 142,000 signatures.
In the video, Templeton pleads with Governor Perdue saying: "Ben was with me, and we were trying to figure out ways to keep both the thrust of the movement together and our lives together. And we were so out of energy and out of hope that there was no thought about a conspiracy or going to war with the powers of the municipality. And we had been beaten by the church and by the government and all we had going for us was the rightness of the cause and I will never believe that that makes people guilty of anything. And I ask you to give them their pardon so that they can move on with their lives with as little baggage of what this horrible sequence has brought about as possible." The pastor did not testify for the defense at the group's trial at the time because he said his life was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan.
In a recent interview with WRAL TV, Innocence Project organizer Cash Michaels said Rev. Templeton and Wilmington 10 member Rev. Ben Chavis, "fully expected the National Guard to storm the church by the next morning, Sunday morning. He and Ben Chavis were together in the church moistening towels and washcloths for the express purpose that when they had services they could pass it out to the congregation on Sunday morning for anyone who did attend services so they could put those towels over their faces in case tear gas was used when the National Guard stormed the place"
Of the 10 members, just six are still alive. Jerry Jacobs, Joe Wright and Anne Shepard have passed. Wilmington 10 member Connie Tyndall died in August. For those who remain - The Rev. Benjamin Chavis, Willie Earl Vereen; Marvin Patrick; Wayne Moore; Reginald Epps and James McKoy -- a new chapter can begin.
At Tyndall's funeral, Cash Michaels, a Raleigh journalist, promised Tyndall's family this would be the year for pardons.
Governor Perdue's pardon means he's kept that promise.
"Justice demands that this stain finally be removed. The process in which this case was tried was fundamentally flawed," she added. "Therefore, as Governor, I am issuing these pardons of innocence to right this longstanding wrong.”
Read the archived Wilmington 10 trial transcripts here.