Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

‘The Moral High Ground’: North Carolina Gov. Beverly Purdue Grants Full Pardons to Wilmington 10

The governor of North Carolina has signed full pardons of innocence for 10 political prisoners wrongfully convicted of arson and conspiracy more than 40 years ago.

Gov. Beverly Purdue, a Democrat, pardoned the Wilmington 10 on Monday. The nine black men and one white woman, only six of whom are still living, were wrongfully convicted of fire-bombing a grocery store after police shot a black teenager.

“I have decided to grant these pardons because the more facts I have learned about the Wilmington 10, the more appalled I have become about the manner in which their convictions were obtained,” Gov. Purdue said.

“The legitimacy of our criminal justice system hinges on it operating in a fair and equitable manner with justice being dispensed based on innocence or guilt– not based on race or other forms of prejudice. That did not happen here,” Purdue added. “Instead, 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.”

The group, composed of nine black student activists and one white anti-poverty advocate, were charged with burning a white-owned store and conspiring to attack police and firefighters during tense race riots in Wilmington in 1971.

The trial and those involved were highly dubious. One witness was given a motorbike in exchange for testifying against the group. Another had a history of mental illness and recanted his testimony during cross-examination. White jurors believed to be Ku Klux Klan members were described in a court note as “good,” while a black juror was called an “Uncle Tom type.”

All 10 of the defendants were found guilty. The group was sentenced to a total of 282 years in prison. Sentences ranged from 15 years for Ann Shepard, the white anti-poverty worker, to 34 years for Benjamin Chavis, who would have his conviction overturned in 1980 and later go on to become executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The Wilmington 10, their ages at the time of conviction, and their sentences, are:

  • Benjamin Chavis (age 24) – 34 years
  • Connie Tindall (age 21) – 31 years
  • Marvin “Chili” Patrick (age 19) – 29 years
  • Wayne Moore (age 19) – 29 years
  • Reginald Epps (age 18) – 28 years
  • Jerry Jacobs (age 19) – 29 years
  • James “Bun” McKoy (age 19) – 29 years
  • Willie Earl Vereen (age 18) – 29 years
  • William “Joe” Wright, Jr. (age 19) – 29 years
  • Ann Shepard (age 35) – 15 years

The Wilmington 10 became a cause célèbre of leftists, human rights, civil rights and social justice advocates both in the US and abroad. Amnesty International took up their case in 1976. The group were often called political prisoners, and by the definition established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed by the United States in 1948, the label was correct. When President Jimmy Carter chastened the Soviet Union for violating its citizens human rights by holding political prisoners, the Soviets responded by citing the case of the Wilmington 10. Sustained media coverage, including a story on CBS’s popular 60 Minutes, helped lead to public calls for full pardons for the group.

Three key witnesses later recanted their testimony, and in 1978 then-Gov. Jim Hunt commuted the sentences of all 10 people. In 1980, the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the group’s convictions, citing evidence withheld by the prosecution that may have aided the defendants. But although the Wilmington 10 were free, they would have to wait nearly 35 years for a full pardon of innocence.

Gov. Purdue did not have to grant such a pardon. She could have done nothing, as her predecessors had, or she could have signed pardons of forgiveness, which are granted to guilty parties.

Chavis, now 64 years old, said the governor’s pardon was a welcome but long overdue development.

“You’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but for 40 years, we’ve struggled to prove our innocence,” Chavis told the Wall Street Journal. “Finally, everything showed that we were framed up.”

Current NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous hailed Gov. Purdue’s decision.

“I applaud Gov. Beverly Purdue for her leadership in righting this disgraceful wrong,” he said.

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