North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue pardoned the “Wilmington 10,” who were wrongfully convicted 40 years ago of firebombing a grocery store in a racially-charged case that was riddled with evidence of perjury by key witnesses, overt racism in the jury selection process and exonerating information deliberately withheld. Nine of the 10 individuals were black, most were activists in their youth, including Benjamin Chavis, who went on to become the leader of the NAACP.
An appeals court overturned the conviction in 1980, but civil rights groups and others have been very vocal in calls for official local government recognition of error in the case a recent New York Times editorial called “one of the more shameful episodes on North Carolina history.”
“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.”
The ‘Wilmington 10:” Benjamin Chaviz, 24 at the time; Ann Shepard (later Ann Shepard Turner), a 35-year-old white social worker; Reginald Epps, 18; Jerry Jacobs,19; James “Bun” McKoy, 19; Wayne Moore, 19; Marvin “Chili” Patrick, 19; Connie Tindall, 21; William “Joe” Wright Jr., 19; and Willie Earl Vereen, 18. Except for Benjamin Chavis and Ann Shepard, all the defendants were residents of Wilmington.