Fitzsimon File, Original Commentary

Time for an overdue pardon

Beverly Perdue is the duly elected Governor of North Carolina for almost another three weeks regardless of the difficulty Republican legislative leaders seem to be having coming to grips with that.

Perdue has been busy lately, leading the effort to turn the Dorothea Dix property into a destination park, working on a plan to keep people with a mental illness from being kicked out of group homes, and weighing possible judicial appointments.

Perdue, like every outgoing governor or president, also faces a stack of hundreds of requests for pardons.

One needs to rise to the top soon and demands her serious attention, the case of the Wilmington 10.

It has now been more than 40 years since 10 people, nine African-American men and one white woman, were convicted of burning down a grocery store in Wilmington in 1971 in the midst of violence that plagued the city after the desegregation of the schools.

The trial was a farce. The prosecutor made up facts, coerced witnesses, and hid crucial evidence from the defense team that the law required him to turn over.

The ten defendants were convicted and spent several years in jail before their sentences were commuted by Governor Jim Hunt in 1977.

An investigation by 60 Minutes indicated that the prosecutor literally manufactured evidence in the case.

A federal appellate court finally threw out the convictions in 1980 after even more evidence of prosecutorial misconduct surfaced and three key witnesses recanted their testimony, admitting they had committed perjury at the original trial.

Four of the Wilmington 10 have passed away.  Now the six survivors of this miscarriage of justice are asking Governor Perdue for a pardon so their names can finally be fully cleared by the state that railroaded them to prison 40 years ago.

The NC NAACP recently released newly discovered documentation that provides another shocking reminder of the unfairness of the original trial, notes from the prosecutor that show he lied to a judge to get a mistrial so he could try the case again with another jury. 

The notes also included stark evidence of racial profiling during jury selection, notations from the prosecutor including “KKK? Good” next to one potential juror’s name and “Uncle Tom” beside another.

The state can’t give back the Wilmington 10 the years stolen from them 40 years ago or undo all the damage done to their lives and reputations and ambitions since.

And Governor Perdue can’t do anything at all for the four defendants who died. 

But she can help the 6 living members of the Wilmington 10 and the families of those who passed away by finally clearing their names and setting the historical record straight.

Irving Joyner, one of the lawyers for the Wilmington 10 at their original trial and now a law professor at N.C. Central, summed it up this way in a recent interview with the Wilmington Journal.

“It is now up to the Governor of North Carolina to determine whether she is going to correct an injustice now, or stand on the side of a racist and illegal prosecution in the name of the State of North Carolina.”

Joyner’s right and this ought to be an easy call. Governor Perdue needs to issue a pardon of innocence now and stand firmly on the side of justice.

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