RALEIGH, N.C. — A member of the so-called Wilmington 10 of Friday delivered stacks of petitions seeking pardons for the civil rights activists to Gov. Beverly Perdue's office.
Ten people were convicted of arson in 1972 for burning a white-owned grocery store during race riots that followed a police officer's fatal shooting of a black teenager.
Three key witnesses in the case later recanted their testimony, and all 10 people were freed in 1980 when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., threw out the convictions, saying perjury and prosecutorial misconduct were factors in the verdicts.
Willie Earl Vereen was in high school when he was falsely accused of the crime – he wasn't even in the county when the store was burned – and spent five years in prison before being released.
"I just knew that they would find out that we were innocent – or speaking for myself, I was innocent – but that never came about," Vereen said Friday. "We were conspired against. We weren't we weren't the conspirators."
The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP recently said newly discovered notes by the prosecutor in the Wilmington 10 case show he engaged in racial profiling to select a jury that would be more favorable for a conviction.
State NAACP President Rev. William Barber said notes taken by former Pender County prosecutor Jay Stroud show he lied to a judge to get a mistrial so he could pick another jury in the case. He then used a race-based strategy during jury selection.
The notes in Stroud's handwriting show "KKK? (good)" next to the names of potential white jurors, and a black member of the jury pool was referred to as an "Uncle Tom." Stroud used his challenges to remove blacks from the jury pool, Barber said.
Although the convictions were overturned, the state never cleared the activists' records.
Vereen handed over petitions containing more than 14,000 signatures seeking pardons of innocence for the activists, and he said he hopes it's enough to persuade Perdue to act.
"When you've been accused of something that you didn't do and you have someone like the governor to pardon you, it makes you feel great. It makes you feel like someone somewhere down the line was listening," he said.
Four of the 10 have already passed away, including Ann Shepherd. Her daughter, Judy Mack, wants justice for all of them.
"They're just asking simply that the truth finally come out, for them to be apologized and granted a pardon, and I think it's long overdue," Mack said.
Raleigh journalist and filmmaker Cash Michaels, who is coordinating the effort to win the pardons, agrees that the time has come to clear the names of the Wilmington 10.
"These 10 innocent people were framed. They have spent the last 40 years in hell. It's time to end this," Michaels said. "We have made the moral arguments. We have made the legal arguments."
Perdue's term in office ends Jan. 5, but a spokeswoman couldn't say when the governor might make a decision on the pardons.