RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Outgoing North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue issued pardons Monday to the Wilmington 10, a group wrongly convicted 40 years ago in a notorious Civil Rights-era prosecution that led to accusations that the state was holding political prisoners.
Perdue issued pardons of innocence Monday for the nine black men and one white woman who received prison sentences totaling nearly 300 years for the 1971 firebombing of a Wilmington grocery store during three days of violence that included the shooting of a black teenager by police.
The pardon means the state no longer thinks the 10 — four of whom have since died — committed a crime.
“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,” Perdue said in a news release Monday.
The three key witnesses in the case later recanted their testimony. Amnesty International and other groups took up the issue, portraying the Wilmington 10 as political prisoners.
In 1978, then-Gov. Jim Hunt commuted their sentences but withheld a pardon. Two years later, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., threw out the convictions, saying perjury and prosecutorial misconduct were factors in the verdicts.
“We are tremendously grateful to Gov. Perdue for her courage,” said Benjamin Chavis, the former national NAACP executive director who was in jail and prison for about five years before his release. “This is a historic day for North Carolina and the United States. People should be innocent until proven guilty, not persecuted for standing up for equal rights and justice.”
In addition to Chavis, the surviving members of the Wilmington 10 are Reginald Epps, James McKoy, Wayne Moore, Marvin Patrick and Willie Earl Vereen. Those who have died are Jerry Jacobs, Ann Shepard, Connie Tindall and Joe Wright.
The bombing of the white-owned Mike’s Grocery occurred less than three years after the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Schools in Wilmington and New Hanover County hadn’t desegregated, and black students began a boycott.
The United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, for whom Chavis worked, sent him to Wilmington to advise the students. On Feb. 6, 1971, the white-owned Mike’s Grocery was firebombed, and police killed a black teenager that night. A day later, a white man was shot and killed.
The National Guard then moved in to end the violence.