Criminal Justice

North Carolina Governor Pardons the Wilmington 10

North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue has pardoned the Wilmington 10, a group of civil rights activists convicted 40 years ago of plotting a 1971 firebombing in a trial later determined to be tainted by perjury and undisclosed evidence.

Nine of the defendants were black and the tenth was a white antipoverty worker, while the firebombed store was white-owned, report the Associated Press, the Charlotte Observer and the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.).

The case became “a human-rights cause célèbre in the 1970s,” the Wall Street Journal says. Three key witnesses recanted their testimony in 1976. In 1978, Gov. Jim Hunt commuted the sentences but withheld a full pardon. In 1980, the Richmond, Va.-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions because the prosecutor had withheld exculpatory evidence and a star witness had committed perjury, the New York Times reported in an op-ed endorsing the pardon.

Perdue issued a full pardon of innocence, representing a total exoneration. She acted after a North Carolina historian uncovered notes said to be written by the prosecutor that described white jurors believed to be Ku Klux Klan members as “good.” One black juror, on the other hand, was described as an “Uncle Tom type.”

Among the defendants was Benjamin Chavis, who was in Wilmington at the time of the firebombing as head of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice. He later became executive director of the national NAACP. Four other defendants have since died.

“It’s been a long, arduous—and at times, torturous—40 years,” Chavis told the Observor. “But this is a joyous day.”

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