RALEIGH, N.C., Dec. 31 (UPI) -- The Wilmington 10, once convicted in the 1971 firebombing of a white-owned grocery, received a New Year's Eve pardon from North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue.
Perdue said in a statement posted on her website she spent "a great deal of time" over several months reviewing the requests for pardons in the racially fueled, civil rights-era case.
"This topic evokes strong opinions from many North Carolinians as it hearkens back to a very difficult time in our state's past, a period of racial tensions and violence that represents a dark chapter in North Carolina's history," said Perdue, who leaves office in early January.
"In evaluating these petitions for clemency, it is important to separate fact from rumor and innuendo. I have decided to grant these pardons because the more facts I have learned about the Wilmington 10, the more appalled I have become about the manner in which their convictions were obtained."
The governor noted that in 1980 a federal appellate court overturned the convictions, citing "gross improprieties" at trial that included perjury by the key prosecution witness, prosecutorial misconduct and other constitutional violations.
"Furthermore, last month, new evidence was made available to me in the form of handwritten notes from the prosecutor who picked the jury at trial," she said. "These notes show with disturbing clarity the dominant role that racism played in jury selection.
"This conduct is disgraceful. It is utterly incompatible with basic notions of fairness and with every ideal that North Carolina holds dear. The legitimacy of our criminal justice system hinges on it operating in a fair and equitable manner with justice being dispensed based on innocence or guilt -- not based on race or other forms of prejudice. That did not happen here. Instead, 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 Wilmington 10 were: Benjamin Chavis, 24, Connie Tindall, 21, Marvin "Chili" Patrick, 19, Wayne Moore, 19, Reginald Epps, 18, Jerry Jacobs, 19, James "Bun" McKoy, 19, Willie Earl Vereen, 18, William "Joe" Wright Jr., 19, and Ann Shepard, 35.
The Charlotte Observer said four of them are dead.
They served several years in prison before their sentences were commuted.
The firebombing occurred at a time when black residents of Wilmington were unhappy with the slow and clumsy implementation of school integration and other civil rights reforms.
On Feb. 6, 1971, Mike's Grocery was set ablaze. Firefighters said they were shot at by snipers from the roof of a nearby church. Rioting erupted in the neighborhood that lasted through the following day, resulting in two deaths and prompting Gov. Bob Scott to call up the National Guard to enter the church Feb. 8 and remove the suspects.