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North Carolina Governor Pardons Wilmington 10

In 1971, during a time of racial unrest in Wilmington, North Carolina, shortly after schools were integrated and amid protests and race-based violence, a white-owned business, Mike’s Grocery, was firebombed. Responding firefighters claimed they were targeted by gunfire from unknown shooters at a nearby church.

Ten people were arrested, including Rev. Benjamin L. Chavis, Jr., a civil rights activist, and Connie Tindall, Marvin Patrick, Wayne Moore, Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs, James McKoy, Willie Earl Vereen, William Wright, Jr. and Ann Shepard. All except Shepard were black.

Following an initial mistrial they were convicted of arson and conspiracy in 1972 in connection with the firebombing, and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 to 34 years. The evidence against them included testimony from several witnesses, one of whom later recanted while another said he received a minibike in exchange for his testimony.

In 1978, then-Governor Jim Hunt reduced the sentences of the ten defendants, who became known as the Wilmington 10; two years later their convictions were overturned by the Fourth Circuit, which found that prosecutors had suppressed evidence in the case. See: Chavis v. State of North Carolina, 637 F.2d 213 (4th Cir. 1980). The Wilmington 10 were not retried.

Fast forward to May 2012, when Chavis and five other surviving members of the Wilmington 10 petitioned outgoing North Carolina Governor Beverly Purdue for full pardons. She granted the pardons on December 31, 2012.

“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,” Governor Perdue stated. “Justice demands that this stain finally be removed.”

She was likely influenced by new evidence in the form of trial notes from Wilmington 10 prosecutor Jay Stroud, which were discovered by Timothy Taylor, a visiting professor at Duke University. The notes indicate that Stroud had intentionally selected white jurors who may have been members of the KKK, or blacks who were “Uncle Tom” types.

For example, the trial notes included the names of six potential jurors with “KKK Good!!” written next to them. At the time of the Wilmington 10 prosecution, North Carolina had the largest number of Ku Klux Klan members in the nation, according to Prof. Taylor.

“We rarely get such direct evidence of prosecutorial racism in jury selection,” said Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP. “It’s a nightmare to see evidence of this district attorney committing such egregious acts of hate on behalf of the citizens of North Carolina. The evidence clearly reveals the injustice that took place in the conviction of the Wilmington 10 and the entrenched racism that polluted the process.”

Stroud defended himself in a media interview in October 2012, saying his notes had been misinterpreted. He said he had wanted “blacks who could be fair” on the jury.

Chavis, who was paroled in 1979, later became director of the NAACP. “We have justice today,” he said after Governor Perdue issued the pardons – four decades after the original convictions. The Wilmington 10 are now eligible to apply for compensation of $50,000 per year they were incarcerated.

Sources: New York Times, CNN, Huffington Post, News Observer, Associated Press

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Related legal case

Chavis v. State of North Carolina