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The Wilmington 10: North Carolina Urged to Pardon Civil Rights Activists Falsely Jailed 40 Years Ago

StoryDecember 28, 2012
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As the new year approaches, North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue is being urged to pardon a group of civil rights activists who were falsely convicted and imprisoned 40 years ago for the firebombing of a white-owned grocery store. Their conviction was overturned in 1980, but the state has never pardoned them. We’re joined by one of the “Wilmington Ten,” longtime civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis, who served eight years behind bars before later becoming head of the NAACP. We also speak to James Ferguson, a lead defense attorney for the Wilmington Ten; and to Cash Michaels, coordinator for the Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project and a reporter for The Wilmington Journal, where he has been covering the activists’ case. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the case of the Wilmington Ten. As the new year approaches, civil rights activists are making a last-ditch push for North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue to pardon a group of civil rights activists who were falsely convicted and imprisoned in the city of Wilmington over 40 years ago. On Thursday, supporters delivered more than 130,000 petition signatures to the governor’s representative. At the press conference, state NAACP president, Reverend William Barber, said it’s not too late to right a wrong.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: We come here, and right after Advent and Christmas and entering into the season of Epiphany, believing that North Carolina can turn this tragic history into a triumphant time of redemption and repentance.

AMY GOODMAN: The case of the Wilmington Ten goes back to 1971, when the city of Wilmington was in the midst of a civil rights struggle. After a white-owned grocery store in a black neighborhood was firebombed, police officers and firefighters arrived to extinguish the flames but came under gunfire. An African-American teen was killed by police that night, and a white man was shot and killed the next day. The National Guard moved in. Nine black men and one white woman were rounded up and hustled off to jail for their alleged involvement. The young defendants, the majority just high school age, were collectively sentenced to a total of more than 280 years in prison.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Then, in December 1980, the Federal 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial and overturned the original conviction. In an unequivocal ruling, the court found the prosecutor had reason to know his chief witness had repeatedly perjured himself on the stand. The court also found the prosecutor had obfuscated evidence and bribed witnesses. Amnesty International has called the Wilmington Ten “American political prisoners.”

The case of the Wilmington Ten recently regained public attention in light of newly discovered notes attributed to the prosecutor, Jay Stroud. The notes indicate Stroud used racial profiling and other unethical tactics to disqualify black jurors in favor of racist jurors who would almost certainly find the defendants guilty. For example, Stroud wrote next to the name of a prospective juror the words ”KKK good,” and next to another juror “sensible; Uncle Tom type.”

AMY GOODMAN: Of the Wilmington Ten, four have already died. Others are battling illness. Their supporters are now asking Governor Perdue to once and for all clear their names and restore their dignity.

For more, we’re joined now by three guests. On the phone, Ben Chavis is with us, one of the Wilmington Ten, civil rights leader, former assistant to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., former executive director of the NAACP. By Democracy Now! video stream, we’re joined by James Ferguson, lead defense attorney for the Wilmington Ten. And from Raleigh, North Carolina, we’re joined by Cash Michaels. He is the coordinator for the Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project and a reporter for The Wilmington Journal, where he’s been covering the case of the Wilmington Ten.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Ben Chavis, you served how many years in prison for your conviction in the Wilmington Ten case?

REV. BENJAMIN CHAVIS: It was about five years in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Five years.

REV. BENJAMIN CHAVIS: During the 1970s, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: What would a pardon mean?

REV. BENJAMIN CHAVIS: Well, a pardon of innocence would mean that the state of North Carolina finally realizes that the trial, the unjust arrest charges, were all racially motivated, politically motivated. And now it’s time, 40 years later, for the state to remove this pain from the members of the Wilmington Ten, from the community of Wilmington, and from the state itself. It’s been an albatross around the state’s neck for over 40 years. And I think that in the spirit of moving forward, to clean—the court—the federal court overturned the convictions on December the 4th, 1980. So, there’s no question about our convictions already have been overturned. But now the state should remove the legacy of injustice, the legacy of inequality. You know, we were trying to get the schools desegregated in Wilmington. That’s what the whole issue was about. The Wilmington Ten was scapegoated. And all of the information that’s come out shows that we were completely innocent of these charges, and therefore a pardon of innocence is more than justified for Governor Perdue to issue.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Ben Chavis, in terms of this new evidence that’s come out of the notes of the prosecutor, were you surprised at the extent to which there was this effort to frame you?

REV. BENJAMIN CHAVIS: Well, we were not surprised that the prosecutor did everything he could to frame us up, even though we were innocent of the charges. But what was surprising, that he documented the frame-up, in his own handwriting, in his own words. So there’s irrefutable evidence in the prosecutor’s own words and handwriting of the frame-up of the Wilmington Ten. And when people are framed up, it means that you put innocent people in jail who should never have been charged and never been prosecuted, never been in prison, and never should have taken 44 years for us to—you know, people are supposed to be innocent ’til proven guilty. But for 40 years, the Wilmington Ten have had to prove their innocence.

AMY GOODMAN: Cash Michaels, you’re a reporter for The Wilmington Journal, a coordinator for the Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project. Talk about the significance of these latest notes, ”KKK good” next to a prospective juror, and what the prosecutor is saying even today.

CASH MICHAELS: Well, you know, it’s funny. I’ve never covered a case where we have more evidence against the prosecutor than we do against those who have been tried, convicted and sentenced to prison. Indeed, Jay Stroud—and the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeal pretty much said this in December of 1980. One of the reasons why all of the convictions, all of the convictions of the Wilmington Ten were overturned is because the 4th Circuit pretty much said there were gross prosecutorial misconduct. They didn’t see the information that we came up with 32 years later. They based their judgment on the fact that the three witnesses for the state against the Wilmington Ten all recanted their testimony, all admitted that they were lying; the fact that the star witness, Allen Hall, who is now deceased, actually not only lied, but actually had a mental problem, a mental disorder, that was never disclosed to the defense—I’m sure Attorney Ferguson can speak more about that; and that indeed the witnesses were paid. One witness was given a motorbike. Allen Hall was put up at the beach cottage, and his girlfriend was brought there, and they were under guard. So, I mean, we’re talking about an incredible malfeasance here.

And to see this and to realize that 10 human beings, 10 American citizens in our nation, four of them now deceased, have lost the last 40 years of their lives because of what one man did, not because they’re guilty of anything—the Wilmington Ten are innocent, they are innocent of any and all charges put against them—but because they took a political stance at a very racially charged period of time. Don’t forget this was just three years after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. The South was still going through a transition in terms of tension. The white power structure did not want to give or cede any power to the African-American community at all in terms of civil rights. And this is what we end up with.

Governor Perdue yesterday, in an interview with WRAL television here, said it is clear that what the prosecutor did was wrong, but that did not mean that they were innocent. And we’re here to say to Governor Perdue now: “Look at all the facts, Ma’am. Look at this case and realize that the facts are in front of you. The Wilmington Ten are innocent of any and all charges in this regard.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, also, the prosecutor, Jay Stroud, has not denied that these notes were his. And could you talk a little bit about how he justifies them, and also what’s happened to him in terms of his run-ins with the law after he left the prosecutor’s office?

CASH MICHAELS: In terms of the notes, unbeknownst to us, in October of this year, Jay Stroud had called the Star-News of Wilmington. He had heard about—the black press, by the way, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, of which The Wilmington Journal is a part of, they initiated in 2011 to indeed try to get pardons of innocence for the Wilmington Ten. So the black press had been all over this story for the better part of a year before the mainstream picked up on it. As a result of our efforts, Jay Stroud called the Star-News, the mainstream paper in Wilmington, asking, well, could he see what the Stroud file business is all about. When he came up there, they showed them to him. And he admitted, “This is all my handwriting. These are all my records.”

What he says, though, is that the jury selection papers that you see, the ”KKK good” did not mean KKK good, it just was an indication that these people may be members of the KKK, and I may not want them on the jury. I don’t understand why he would put “good” next to their names, but that’s what he did. In terms of looking for “Uncle Tom type” black jurors, he said he was looking for, quote, “conservative blacks, blacks who could be fair,” end-quote. So he clearly had some kind of notion that there were certain types of jurors he wanted on the case.

And when you show the back of that legal pad, that I believe you may have an image of, where he didn’t get the jury that he wanted, he didn’t get the KKK, “Uncle Tom type” jury that he wanted, on the back of a legal pad he draws two lines, and then he writes “advantages and disadvantages of mistrial” and actually calculates as to whether or not he should throw the first trial in June of 1972 for the express purpose of getting both the judge and jury that he feels that he needs in the second trial in September 1972.

And you’re correct. In the last couple of years, Jay Stroud, former prosecutor, has been disbarred. He has been picked up on various charges, from assault to disorderly conduct. And he says, in the interview that he had with the Star-News, that he’s completely innocent of any and every time that he’s been arrested on these charges.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the prosecutor.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The former prosecutor. Well, James Ferguson, talk about the—your efforts now to try to get the governor to have—issue a pardon of innocence in this case and the importance of getting that pardon in terms of the—setting the record straight and righting wrongs that occurred in North Carolina during that period of time.

JAMES FERGUSON: … governor and set the record straight. She has the power, and she alone has the power to issue pardons of innocence to every one of the Wilmington Ten. And I emphasize pardon of innocence, in contrast to a pardon of forgiveness. There’s been some talk about the governor considering a pardon of forgiveness. A pardon of forgiveness would be nothing more than a reaffirmation of the guilt of the Wilmington Ten, in the face of this outrageous prosecution that has now come to light.

So we’re calling upon the governor at this time, before she leaves office, to act, to give some relief, and to restore some dignity and the reputation of these young people who were convicted in 1972 for no reason other than they were protesting the desegregation process, the way it was being carried out, which was unjust to black students. They were protesting that, and because they were gathered in a church protesting that, they wound up being charged with these heinous offenses and having to live with that for the last 40 years. So we’re asking the governor simply to do the right thing, not to be governed by politics, not to be swayed by those who simply want to see this injustice continue, but to look at the evidence in front of her, all of which says that the Wilmington Ten are innocent and that the evidence upon which they were convicted was perjured evidence, was participated in by both the prosecution and even the court in getting this perjured testimony.

So the 4th Circuit has done all it can do by declaring these convictions unfair, unjust, and overturning them. But the state had, and still has, the right to try them again. Now, over the 32 years since the court spoke, the state has not lifted a finger to try them again, and they haven’t lifted a finger because they can’t. They have only the perjured testimony of those three witnesses. But there is no other testimony and no other evidence in this case to link the Wilmington Ten to the crime that was committed. They are innocent. They are completely innocent. And we simply call upon the governor to declare that and set the record straight so that we can begin now, 40 years later, the healing process of a racial division that has plagued this community in Wilmington since 1898.

AMY GOODMAN: James Ferguson, have you any indication of what the governor will do? And can the president of the United States, President Obama, weigh in here?

JAMES FERGUSON: It’s not a federal conviction, even though the federal circuit court declared the conviction unjust and overturned it. The president of the United States doesn’t have direct authority to do that. The governor of North Carolina is given that power by the Constitution of the United States. We have no indication of what the governor will do, other than what she said in her interview yesterday, which is that anybody looking at this prosecution knows that it was unfair and that it was unjust. She needs to take the next up and say anybody looking at this prosecution can see that there were innocent people convicted on the basis of perjured testimony by an unfair jury, the fourth person of which stated, before she served, that she believed Reverend Chavis and others of the Wilmington Ten to be guilty. She is the only one who can correct this wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Chavis, you’re—the sentences have already been overturned. Why is this so important to you?

REV. BENJAMIN CHAVIS: Well, it’s very important now, even though—everyone should be innocent 'til proven guilty. And the record now shows that the Wilmington Ten were not treated fairly, were not treated constitutionally. We were framed up. And so, it's very important not just for the members of the Wilmington Ten, for all Americans. No one—black, white—no one should be framed up and sent to prison if you’re innocent. And that’s—and so, this is a case—I think Attorney Ferguson is correct. The governor of North Carolina has the authority to right this wrong. And until the wrong is righted, the members of the Wilmington Ten, we will not rest. We will continue to raise this issue, not only for ourselves, but for all people who live in the United States of America.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Chavis, we want to thank you for being with us, attorney James Ferguson and Cash Michaels, reporter for The Wilmington Journal. We’ll link to all your reports at The Wilmington Journal at democracynow.org.

As we wrap up today’s show, we encourage you to tune in Monday and Tuesday for our year-end specials. On Monday, culture and resistance, as we look back at our cultural coverage from the past year, featuring the voices of everyone from Alice Walker to Randy Weston, Steve Earle, Randall Robinson and many others. On New Year’s Day, we’ll look back at the events of 2012, a year of extreme weather, big guns and big money. That’s Monday and Tuesday. Tune into democracynow.org.

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Rev. William Barber: 123 Years After Wilmington Massacre by White Supremacists, Voting Rights Fight Continues

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