Forty years after their wrongful convictions for firebombing a grocery store in Wilmington, N.C., outgoing Gov. Beverly Perdue on Monday pardoned the civil rights activists who became known as the Wilmington 10, CNN reports.
Former NAACP head Benjamin Chavis was among the activists, who were convicted and sentenced to a combined 300 years in prison. A federal court overturned their convictions in 1980, but the charges remained as a stain on their records, and their names were never cleared.
“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,” said Gov. Beverly Purdue. “Justice demands that this stain finally be removed.”
In 1972, nine black men and one white woman were convicted in the store firebombing in the coastal city despite their claims of innocence and their supporters’ vehement argument that the defendants were victims of racially biased prosecutors.
Their sentences were reduced in 1978 by the state’s governor then, Jim Hunt, and two years later their convictions were overturned in federal court for reasons of misconduct by the prosecutors.
But until Monday there were no pardons, and the sting of the guilty verdicts still followed the six surviving members of the group that was known nationwide as the Wilmington 10.
Perdue said that among the key evidence that led her to grant pardons of innocence were recently discovered notes from the prosecutor who picked the jury. The notes showed the prosecutor preferred white jurors who might be members of the Ku Klux Klan and one black juror was described as an “Uncle Tom type.”
Perdue also pointed to the federal court’s ruling that the prosecutor knew his star witness lied on the witness stand. That witness and other witnesses recanted a few years after the trial.
NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous praised the decision in a statement released to The Root on Tuesday. The group organized a petition to Gov. Perdue asking that she pardon these innocent activists. The petition received more than 15,000 signatures.