Citing new evidence, the NAACP has asked the North Carolina governor to pardon the so-called Wilmington Ten who were convicted of arson and conspiracy more than four decades ago in a case some say was tainted by racial discrimination and jury tampering.
The NAACP last week began circulating an online petition aimed at pressuring North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) to pardon the 10, convicted of firebombing a white-owned grocery store and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 years to 34 years.
The petition comes as the NAACP on Tuesday revealed trial notes by prosecutor Jay Stroud that the civil rights group said show the assistant district attorney trying to select jurors who were KKK members and "uncle Tom" types. Stroud also wrote of weighing pros and cons of a mistrial, later granted based on his claim of illness. A second trial resulted in the convictions.
"We rarely get such direct evidence of prosecutorial racism in jury selection," said the Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP. "The prosecutor is ethically bound to put justice over winning. District attorneys represent all the people in North Carolina, not just white people in North Carolina.
Barber said the new evidence is so powerful that he believes it would have persuaded the federal appeals court that overturned the convictions in 1980 to recommend charges against the prosecutor. Stroud couldn't be located for comment.
"The new evidence is a nightmare," Barber said. "It's a nightmare to see evidence of this district attorney committing such egregious acts of hate on behalf of the citizens of North Carolina. The evidence clearly reveals the injustice that took place in the conviction of the Wilmington Ten and the entrenched racism that polluted the process. North Carolina needs to repent and cleanse itself of this tragic misuse of power in our judicial system."
The Wilmington Ten case, which gained international notoriety, dates to 1971 in Wilmington, N.C., where activists fought for the public school desegregation in one of the last states to allow blacks into what had been white-only schools. In 1972, the nine men and one woman were convicted of firebombing Mike's Grocery and were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, even though no one was hurt. In 1980, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions. But the 10 defendants -- not all still alive -- have never been fully exonerated.
Civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis, who was among those convicted, said he believes some good could still come from the injustice if the governor grants the pardons.
"I think today's generation of youth can be and should inspired be the true and living story of the Wilmington Ten," Chavis told The Huffington Post. "These lessons can be learned: Young people with the proper raised consciousness on social issues can and will change the world. Social change does not happen by osmosis, it happens by the concerted actions of people of good will who care and take action for change. If the pardon of innocence is granted by Gov. Perdue to the Wilmington Ten, it will show young people and all people that the past sacrifices for freedom, justice and equality were not in vain, but a necessary struggle and step to help transform our nation and world into a better place."
Perdue's term as governor ends this year, so she has short time to decide the pardon petition.
“The petition for the pardon of innocence on behalf of the Wilmington 10, like each petition, is being considered on its own merits," Chris Mackey, a spokesman for the governor, said in an email. "There is no timetable by which the governor has to make a decision.”
Irving Joyner, a law professor at North Carolina Central University who helped defend the Wilmington Ten in 1972, discovered the prosecutor's notes among boxes of information that were provided to a historian who was writing a book on the Wilmington Ten. “In my review of the materials I came across the notes,” Joyner told The Huffington Post.
Although Stroud’s notes alone do not prove the case for a pardon, the NAACP said it believes they show how racism polluted the Wilmington Ten case from the start.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to Governor Beverly Perdue as a Republican.