Wilmington Ten
Members of the ?Wilmington 10? hold a brief communion service before boarding a prison bus on Feb. 2, 1976 in Burgaw, North Carolina, as they surrendered to start prison terms on convictions growing out of 1971 racial disorders in Wilmington, N.C. Four of the group shown from left are Connie Tindall, Rev. Ben Chavis, Jerry Jacobs and Anne Sheppard. (AP Photo)

After decades of claims that they were wrongly convicted, nine African-American men and one white women who were imprisoned for an arson fire in North Carolina that stemmed from racial unrest over integrated schools have been pardoned.

North Carolina Gov. Bev Purdue, who is leaving office in just one week, issued the pardons Monday.

Purdue’s office issued a statement, saying she had spent “a great deal of time over the past seven months reviewing the pardon of innocence requests of the persons collectively known as the Wilmington Ten.”

“This topic evokes strong opinions from many North Carolinians as it hearkens back to a very difficult time in our state’s past,” Purdue’s statement continued, calling the era “a period of racial tensions and violence that represents a dark chapter in North Carolina’s history. These cases generate a great deal of emotion from people who lived through these traumatic events.”

“In evaluating these petitions for clemency, it is important to separate fact from rumor and innuendo. 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,” Purdue’s statement continued (full statement at the end of this post.)

Many civil liberties and civil rights groups, including Amnesty International, had called for a pardon for the “Wilmington 10,” who were convicted for an arson fire at a white-owned grocery store in a black section of Wilmington, North Carolina in 1971. The fire came as tensions raged in the community over the integration of local schools. Firefighters were shot as they fought the blaze. The ten, some of whom were just teenagers at the time, were convicted of arson and conspiracy, though all denied having anything to do with the crimes.

Gov. Rick Hunt commuted the ten’s sentences in 1978, as their cases were being appealed, but the convictions continued to dog the group, many of whom reportedly had difficulty getting their lives on track.

The latest to call for pardons in the case was MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry, who issued an open letter to Purdue on her MSNBC show on Saturday.

“As you know, in 1972, nine young African-American men and one white woman were wrongly convicted of firebombing a Wilmington grocery store during civil rights protests. Most of the Wilmington Ten were just teenagers at the time. But despite shaky evidence, the young musicians, students and activists were sentenced to a total of 282 years in prison,” Harris-Perry said.

“Gov. Perdue you once stated that “there’s nobody in America…who could say that trial was fair or that there wasn’t some kind of undercurrent or overt racism involved in the jury selection,” Harris-Perry continued. “Indeed, it was so overt that by 1977, at least three witnesses had recanted their testimony. And in 1980, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the convictions of the Wilmington Ten–noting that the chief witness lied on the stand and that prosecutors concealed evidence.”

Apparently, appeals like Harris-Perry’s worked, and the ten, including civil rights leader Rev. Ben Chavis, have received full pardons. The move comes too late for four of the ten, who have died.

According to the News & Observer:

In 1980, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions citing prosecutorial misconduct and denials of due process, but the charges of four decades ago lingered. State prosecutors did not seek a new trial, but there was no acquittal, either.

This year, in a movement spurred by Ben Chavis, who went to Wilmington as head of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice and ended up among those arrested, the NAACP and other advocates for the Wilmington 10 appealed to the governor for a pardon.

The trial of the Wilmington 10 was tainted by racial bias and key testimony was recanted. It was a case borne in an era of racial confrontation over school integration and civil rights.

Recently, Tim Tyson, a North Carolina writer and historian, uncovered notes from the prosecutor in the case. The notes include the prosecutor’s efforts to select a favorable jury based on race. When the prosecutor failed in the first instance – the selected jury was two whites and 10 blacks – his notes written on the back of a legal pad indicate he feigned illness to cause a mistrial and succeeded. The second trial had a jury of 10 whites and two blacks and it produced the conviction that was tossed out.