By Cash Michaels
Special to the NNPA From The Wilmington Journal
WILMINGTON, N.C. – After seven months of advocacy, supporters for pardons of innocence for the Wilmington Ten are now making their closing arguments for justice, in hopes that the 40-year ordeal of being falsely convicted of crimes the Ten did not commit will finally come to an end.
Led by Benjamin Chavis, Wilmington Ten members, the Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project, along with partners from the North Carolina NAACP, Change.org, and a delegation of supporters from Wilmington, returned to the state Capital Thursday to urge Gov. Beverly Perdue to look at the entire case, the lack of evidence against the Ten, and the overwhelming evidence that the man who prosecuted them 40 years ago, Jay Stroud packed the jury seeking “KKK and Uncle Tom-types.”
When Stroud didn’t get the predominantly White jury he wanted, the stunning evidence uncovered by the Pardons Project shows, he forced a mistrial.
The Winston-Salem Chronicle, one of many Black newspaper members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association that have religiously carried the Wilmington Ten stories – wrote, “…[the] racially-charged convictions more than four decades ago remain a black-eye for the state.”
Major mainstream newspapers that finally picked up on the pardon effort months after NNPA papers agree.
“The Wilmington Ten said they were nonviolent activists. It has never been legitimately proven otherwise,” stated the News & Observer, North Carolina’s most influential newspaper last week, in a powerful editorial titled, “Pardon the Wilmington Ten.”
The editorial observed, “They remain innocent until proven guilty, but for most of their lives they’ve been assumed guilty until they could prove themselves innocent, an impossibility in this case… the governor can do more than pardon. She can heal. We hope she will.”
In its editorial last Sunday, the New York Times, the nation’s most influential newspaper, also called on Gov. Perdue to grant pardons of innocence to the Ten, saying that, “by providing it, she can finally bring a close to one of the more shameful episodes in North Carolina history.”
Since the pardons of innocence campaign – started by the National Newspaper Publishers Association and The Wilmington Journal in 2011 – went national last May, the response has been overwhelming.
Change.org, the social media advocacy group that amassed more than 2 million petition signatures in the Trayvon Martin case, launched a national campaign for the Wilmington Ten pardons, generating at press time more than 120,000 petition signatures.
That’s in addition to the previous 14,200 petition signatures collected by the NAACP and The Wilmington Journal from across North Carolina and the nation, along with an untold number of letters from public officials and citizens, all asking Gov. Perdue to pardon the Ten.
Several United States Congressmen, celebrities such as music mogul Russell Simmons, university law professors and the NAACP – whose Board of Directors last May unanimously passed a resolution in support of the Wilmington Ten pardons effort – have come onboard.
Hundreds of followers of the Change.org petition, and on the Pardon Project’s Facebook page, have voiced their support as well, urging Gov. Perdue to grant pardons to the Wilmington Ten now.
“It is about time that this wrong is righted,” posted Linda F. Chapman of Wilmington.
“I am appalled that an official pardon has never been given,” agreed Madeline Chang of New York. “Even 40 years late, I am hopeful that the governor will do what is right.”
But not everyone agrees that the Ten deserve to be cleared.
Two weeks ago, a group calling itself, “Citizens for Justice,” took out a quarter-page ad in the Wilmington StarNews, asking Gov. Purdue not to grant pardons to the Wilmington Ten, essentially because, they say, it has never been proven that the nine Black males and one White female civil rights activists didn’t conspire to firebomb a White-owned grocery store in February 1971, and fire weapons on responding fire and police personnel from a church steeple.
Retired White Wilmington police officers, and even former prosecutor Jay Stroud, have told the local Wilmington media that the Ten are guilty, and deserved the 282-year prison sentences they received in 1972, although courts have ruled otherwise.
There are reports of former state Justice Department officials lobbying Gov. Perdue not to give in to the growing national pressure to grant pardons, despite powerful evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, some of which was known more than three decades ago.
In 1977, three prosecution witnesses, who testified against the Ten, recanted their testimonies in court. The CBS News program, “60 Minutes” then exposed much of the evidence against the Wilmington Ten as “fabricated” by prosecutors.
In 1980, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions based upon that prosecutor and the trial judge allowed the introduction of perjured testimony and withheld critical evidence which defense attorneys were entitled to receive.
The Winston Salem Chronicle wrote, “The frame-up was exposed, but the State of North Carolina has never declared the Ten innocent, retried them, nor have the fabricated charges been dismissed against them. Though freed and cleared, they’ve had to live out their lives under an unjust cloud.”
Gov. Perdue is expected to make a decision on pardons of innocence for the Wilmington Ten before she leaves office on January 5.