'Pardon doesn't remove injustice'
01:48 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Outgoing governor says convictions were "tainted by naked racism"

Governor's decree says finally that "Wilmington 10" members were innocent

One former member went on to become leader of the NAACP

Members of group have been out of prison for years, some have died

CNN  — 

Forty years after they were convicted by a jury of firebombing a grocery store in Wilmington, North Carolina, civil rights activists who became known as the “Wilmington 10” were pardoned Monday by the state’s outgoing governor.

“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,” said Gov. Beverly Perdue. “Justice demands that this stain finally be removed.”

In 1972, nine black men and one white woman were convicted in the store firebombing in the coastal city despite their claims of innocence and their supporters’ vehement argument that the defendants were victims of racially biased prosecutors.

Their sentences were reduced in 1978 by the state’s governor then, Jim Hunt, and two years later their convictions were overturned in federal court for reasons of misconduct by the prosecutors.

But until Monday there were no pardons, and the sting of the guilty verdicts still followed the six surviving members of the group that was known nationwide as the Wilmington 10.

Perdue said that among the key evidence that led her to grant pardons of innocence were recently discovered notes from the prosecutor who picked the jury. The notes showed the prosecutor preferred white jurors who might be members of the Ku Klux Klan and one black juror was described as an “Uncle Tom type.”

Perdue also pointed to the federal court’s ruling that the prosecutor knew his star witness lied on the witness stand. That witness and other witnesses recanted a few years after the trial.

Timothy Tyson, a North Carolina historian and a visiting professor at Duke University, said he was given the notes two years ago and started to go through them recently when the NAACP called again for pardons for the Wilmington 10.

“It was pretty shocking stuff,” he told CNN on Monday.

There were at least six potential jurors with “KKK Good!!” written next to them, he said. Next to a woman’s name it said, “NO, she associates with Negroes.”

On the back of the legal pad, the prosecutor, Jay Stroud, had apparently written the advantages and disadvantages of a mistrial, Tyson said. One of the advantages was a fresh start with a new jury.

Stroud told the Wilmington StarNews in October that the handwriting on the legal pad was his, but people were misinterpreting his notes.

“I could have had an all-white jury, but I didn’t want to do that. Why would I leave a KKK on the jury?” Stroud said.

He told the newspaper that he wanted “blacks who could be fair” on the jury.

It was actually the second jury that ruled on the case. The first jury was dismissed after a mistrial was declared when Stroud said he was ill. That jury had two whites.

Tyson said the early 1970s were “really hard and really bad” and a “bubbling cauldron” of racially heated struggles in the state.

North Carolina had the largest number of Ku Klux Klan members in the country, he said, but there was also a strong African-American freedom movement.

“(The time) was seething with anger and resentment and fear and rage,” he said.

And one of the Wilmington 10 was the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, whom Tyson described as a handsome, fearless civil rights leader who came from a brilliant family.

He was a threat to the “old guard” of North Carolina leaders.

Chavis was a target for police even before the firebombing occurred, Tyson said.

Chavis, who would become the head of the NAACP in 1993, was paroled in 1979.

Most of the others involved in the case struggled after they were set free.

“Things went badly for them,” Tyson said. “Many of them had their health broken in prison.”