2012 went out with a bang in law and politics. The last day of the year brought historical and unpredictable news in progressive law and politics. Outgoing North Carolina Governor Perdue pardoned the “Wilmington 10” for wrongful convictions over 40 years ago. And for the first time in two decades, Republican senators voted to raise taxes on the wealthy and other measures to avoid the fiscal cliff with the final full Senate vote of 89-8, occurring after 2:00 a.m. on January 1. Vice President Biden helped to broker the needed deal to avoid going over the fiscal cliff. And on January 1, lightening struck twice with the GOP controlled Congress voting to approve the deal. House Republicans for once came to work and got a bill passed. It was a rocky start but in the end, sanity prevailed.
Justice Delayed but not Denied for Wilmington 10
Forty years ago, 10 civil rights activists were tried and convicted for bombing a grocery store in Wilmington, NC. in 1971. All maintained their innocence ever since the incident. The most notable of the ten is Ben Chavis, former president of the NAACP. On December 31, 2012, justice came as the outgoing NC Governor Perdue pardoned all ten. In signing the pardon, the governor stated, “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.” “Justice demands that this stain finally be removed.”
The pardon is a complete unconditional pardon which legally wipes out the convictions but not the pain the 10 endured all these years. Four have since died.
A much younger Ben Chavis came to Wilmington, NC as a civil rights minister in 1972 to help mobilize for civil rights. And many whites in the area had their goal set to discredit and destroy any civil rights efforts. A jury of many white KKK members convicted the Wilmington 10 of firebombing a grocery store. The prosecutor, by his own notes, excluded anyone who might be sympathetic to blacks. Chavis received a sentence of 34 years. The total sentences for the nine black men and one white woman, consisting of the Wilmington 10 was 334 years. Years later, the key witnesses recanted their testimony.
The Wilmington 10 sentences were reduced in 1978 by the state’s governor then, Jim Hunt. Ben Chavis was paroled in 1979. Their convictions were later overturned in federal court for reasons of misconduct by the prosecutors. A federal court held that the prosecutor knew the key witness lied about the case to obtain the conviction. Despite the key witness recanting and other witnesses recanting of their accounts, the convictions remained. Their convictions were not fully pardoned until December 31, 2012.
A few years ago, I watched as Ben Chavis recounted some of his years in prison. It was evident that his pain and suffering was not erased by the years. Perhaps, the pardon will give him and the others some measure of relief. Six of the Wilmington 10 are alive today. Their families are here to finally see that justice was obtained.
The wheels of justice do indeed turn slowly. Justice delayed is not the same as justice denied in this case. Unfortunately for many others who have been the product of wrongful convictions, their justice may never come. But on December 31, 2012, justice finally came for these 10 persons.