WILMINGTON, N.C. — On Oct. 17, 1972, nine young black men and a white woman were convicted in a Burgaw courtroom.
The Wilmington 10 were sentenced to 282 years in prison on charges of conspiracy to firebomb Mike’s Grocery and conspiracy to assault emergency personnel who responded to the fire.
Forty years later, they are still seeking a pardon from the state of North Carolina.
Benjamin Chavis, who had been sent to Wilmington by the Commission for Racial Justice to help desegregate New Hanover County public schools, served the longest sentence of the Wilmington 10. In May, Chavis, who was executive director of the NAACP from 1993 to 1994, along with the surviving members of the Wilmington 10, petitioned Gov. Beverly Perdue for a pardon of innocence.
Perdue, who is not seeking re-election, has taken no action on the issue beyond issuing a statement that the pardon requests would be given full and fair consideration.
The Wilmington 10 trial was marked by controversy from the outset.
After 10 black jurors and two white jurors were seated, prosecutor Jay Stroud complained of an illness, and a mistrial was declared. A second trial was held in Pender County, where 10 white jurors and two black jurors were empaneled.
Three key witnesses testified in the case, naming Chavis, white social services worker Ann Shepard and eight black high school students as conspirators in the firebombing and assault on rescue personnel. Only Shepard testified in her own defense.
All three witnesses recanted their testimonies in 1976. During a federal grand jury investigation in 1977, one witness testified that he was given a minibike and another said his girlfriend was transported across the state for a meeting with him at a motel. One witness said he was offered $40,000 not to appear at the grand jury hearing.
The case became a public spectacle that rose all the way to President Jimmy Carter. When Carter championed the release of political prisoners, foreign critics said the U.S. also held political prisoners, mentioning the Wilmington 10 by name.
In 1978, Gov. Jim Hunt reduced the sentences of the Wilmington 10, and in 1980, a federal appeals court overturned the convictions, ruling that both the prosecutor and trial judge had made errors that had violated the defendants’ rights.
New York Times writer Wayne King conducted his own investigation in 1978 and found an anonymous source who said that Chavis encouraged him to participate in the bombing and shooting. King’s conclusion was that prosecutors may have “framed a guilty man.”
One new development in the case of the Wilmington 10 is the discovery of “the Stroud files,” which were revealed in September.
On the back of a note pad, prosecutor Jay Stroud wrote a list of pros and cons of a mistrial. Among the advantages of a mistrial were “different judge” and “fresh start w/ new jury from another county.”
At the time, Stroud was facing 10 black jurors and two white jurors. Stroud complained of an illness and a mistrial was declared.
Stroud’s notes indicate that the second jury suited him better. In his notes, he refers to one potential juror as an “Uncle Tom type” and several times, he uses phrases such as “possibly KKK good.” Next to many jurors’ names, he wrote a capital B, which seems to indicate a black juror.
Whether or not the new information will affect the Wilmington 10’s potential for pardons remains to be seen. A pardon from the governor would also make the Wilmington 10 eligible to apply for $50,000 per year of incarceration from the state, along with some job training benefits.
Historically, if potentially controversial pardons are awarded, they are awarded in the waning days of a governor’s term. Perdue’s last day in office will be Dec. 31.
For Connie Tindall, it’s already too late.
The Wilmington resident died in August at the age of 62. He was the fourth member of the Wilmington 10 to die.
“I would love to see him pardoned,” said Ophelia Dixon, Tindall’s younger sister. “Every day of his life, he looked forward to it. Connie won’t know if he’s pardoned. That’s the only thing, but at least his family will be able to put a period after all this.”
The case of the Wilmington 10 was the overriding theme at Tindall’s funeral. Video clips from support rallies were played, and presenters spoke of the injustice that Tindall endured throughout his adult life.
Willie Earl Vereen understands.
The youngest of the Wilmington 10, Vereen was a high school sophomore when race riots enveloped Wilmington. His grandmother owned a cleaners, and though he wasn’t a perfect student, his grandmother had stated that she would help him get into college.
Instead of studying to be a doctor or lawyer, Vereen became an inmate and a martyr.
“College? I just forgot about that,” Vereen said.
After he was paroled, Vereen, now disabled, landed occasional jobs. Invariably, he said, someone would ask him about the Wilmington 10 in front of a supervisor, he said, and he would lose the job.
He has since had bouts with substance abuse, though his most recent stint at rehab helped him clean up.
Even today, some people who don’t know him think he’s innocent; others think he’s guilty and some have never heard of the Wilmington 10.
The pardon is still on his mind.
“It would mean a lot to me,” he said. “It would mean that God has intervened and straightened this thing out before I die. It’s time to correct this wrong.”