RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Outgoing North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue issued pardons Monday to the Wilmington 10, a group wrongly convicted 40 years ago in a notorious Civil Rights-era prosecution that led to accusations of the state holding political prisoners.
Perdue issued pardons of innocence Monday for the nine black men and one white woman who combined were sentenced to nearly 300 years in prison for the 1971 firebombing of a Wilmington grocery store after police shot a black teenager.
The pardon means the state no longer thinks the 10 — four of whom have since died — committed a crime.
"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 said in a news release Monday.
The three key witnesses in the case later recanted their testimony. Amnesty International and other groups took up the issue, portraying the Wilmington 10 as political prisoners.
In 1978, then-Gov. Jim Hunt commuted their sentences but withheld a pardon. Two years later, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., threw out the convictions, saying perjury and prosecutorial misconduct were factors in the verdicts.
"We are tremendously grateful to Gov. Perdue for her courage," said Benjamin Chavis, the former national NAACP executive director who was in jail and prison for about five years before his release. "This is a historic day for North Carolina and the United States. People should be innocent until proven guilty, not persecuted for standing up for equal rights and justice. For 40 years we have maintained our innocence. Thank God for Gov. Perdue. Today is a victory for civil rights. Today is a victory for equal justice. This decision will remove a cloud that has been hanging over North Carolina for decades."
The Wilmington 10 were convicted in October 1972 on charges of conspiracy to firebomb Mike's Grocery and conspiracy to assault emergency personnel who responded to the fire in February 1971.
The trial was held in Burgaw in Pender County after a judge declared a mistrial the first time. A jury of 10 blacks and two whites had been seated in the first trial when prosecutor Jay Stroud said he was sick, and the judge declared the mistrial. At the second trial, a jury of 10 whites and two blacks was seated.
The three key witnesses who took the stand for the prosecution recanted their testimony in 1976. And the prosecutor, Stroud, became a flashpoint for the Wilmington 10 supporters.
In November, NAACP state leaders said they believe newly uncovered notes show Stroud tried to keep blacks off the first jury and seat whites he thought were sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan.
They showed the notes on a poster board, saying the handwriting on the legal paper appeared to match notes from other prosecution records in the case.
At the top of the list of 100 jurors, the notes said, "stay away from black men." A capital "B'' was beside the names of black jurors. The notes identify one potential black juror as an "Uncle Tom type," and beside the names of several white people, notations include "KKK?" and "good!!"
Stroud told the StarNews of Wilmington that he wrote the notes but declined to confirm that to the AP.
"This conduct is disgraceful," Perdue said of the notes. "It is utterly incompatible with basic notions of fairness and with every ideal that North Carolina holds dear. 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.
"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."
AP writer Michael Biesecker contributed to this story.
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc