Pressure Mounts To Free 'Wilmington Ten'

A group of North Carolinians convicted of arson decades ago in a controversial court case are asking the outgoing governor for a pardon of innocence. The trial and prison sentences of the "Wilmington Ten" sparked international outcry and a protest march of 10,000 people in Washington, D.C.

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In North Carolina, pressure is mounting to pardon a group of people convicted of a crime everyone agrees they did not commit. The group is known as the Wilmington Ten. In 1972, a state court found them guilty of firebombing a store.

The Wilmington Ten were activists, musicians, students and community volunteers. Supporters say they were framed by police and prosecutors. The trial was so poorly run that a federal appeals court later overturned their sentences. But as we hear from Jessica Jones of North Carolina Public Radio, the state has never exonerated them.

JESSICA JONES, BYLINE: This is not the first time civil rights groups and advocates for the Wilmington Ten are calling for clemency. Back in 1978, they expected the governor at the time, Jim Hunt, to pardon the group, but he chose only to reduce their sentences. In a recording of a press conference stored at the state archives of North Carolina, one of the 10, Reverend Benjamin Chavis, ridiculed the governor.

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REVEREND BENJAMIN CHAVIS: I invite the governor to explain how it is fair for the state to coerce, to force and to bribe three state's witnesses to testify against me and my comrades. How is that fair? How is that fair for us to remain in prison when the state has no case at all against us?

JONES: It's a question many others asked at the time. In 1972, Chavis, eight other black men and one white woman were found guilty of setting a Wilmington grocery store on fire. But their trial was widely seen as a sham. Celebrities such as folk singer Pete Seeger and politicians like Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev called the group political prisoners. Yet even after the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned their convictions in 1980, none of North Carolina's governors has ever issued a pardon. Willie Vereen is one of only six members of the group who are still alive today.

WILLIE VEREEN: They really didn't care about our lives. They didn't care.

JONES: Vereen believes Governor Hunt was too focused on winning re-election in a state where the Ku Klux Klan was still active. He says subsequent leaders were too skittish to take a stand. Even today, four decades later, tears stream down his face as he says nothing will ever make up for the way he was treated right after the trial.

VEREEN: I felt like a man without a country, a man without a race, a people because it wasn't only whites, it was blacks also that testified against us.

JONES: Vereen has always maintained his innocence, as have the others. Police and prosecutors pressured and paid off witnesses at the trial, who later recanted their testimony. Today, advocates say previously overlooked evidence in case files is more proof the state should pardon the group. Reverend William Barber heads North Carolina's NAACP.

REVEREND WILLIAM BARBER: We now have direct evidence in the handwriting of the assistant DA that he perjured himself before the court and then engaged in illegal, unconstitutional process, illegal process, based on race to stack the jury in order to complete this framing of these 10 young innocent people.

JONES: Barber says trial notes show the assistant DA assigned to the case deliberately tried to select KKK members and blacks who he called Uncle Tom types as jurors. Many think the new evidence should help convince North Carolina's outgoing governor, Bev Perdue, to exonerate the group. Judy Mack's late mother, Ann Shepard, was the only woman of the 10.

JUDY MACK: As Wilmington Ten supporters, we know in our hearts and in our minds that they were there to do the right thing and that they were not guilty of these crimes, but it would kind of show everybody else in the state that the state actually thinks so too.

JONES: A petition with 12,000 signatures in support of the Wilmington Ten has landed on Governor Perdue's desk. The governor leaves office in early January. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Durham, North Carolina.

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