by Cash Michaels
Special to the NNPA from the Wilmington Journal
WILMINGTON, N.C. – Now that the Wilmington Ten, after more than 40 years, have been legally granted pardons of actual innocence from the state of North Carolina, their attorneys are now hard at work on the next phase – compensation.
“We are in the process now of preparing an effort to seek compensation for the living members of the Wilmington Ten, and the decedents of the four deceased [Wilmington Ten members],” attorney Irving Joyner, professor of law at North Carolina Central University’s School of Law, told The Wilmington Journal. “There are significant legal questions remaining that we have to deal with, but we’re working through that now, and trying to develop the strategy that we need to go forward.”
It was January 5, during a jammed-packed church service led by North Carolina NAACP President William Barber at Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ, that five of the six remaining members of the Wilmington Ten – Benjamin Chavis, Wayne Moore, Willie Earl Vereen, James McKoy, and Marvin Patrick (Reginald Epps was unable to attend) – and the families of deceased members Anne Shepard, William Joe Wright, Jerry Jacobs and Connie Tindall, officially received their certificates, signed by outgoing Gov. Beverly Perdue on Dec. 31, declaring each innocent of the 1972 conspiracy charges they were convicted of stemming from the burning of a White-owned grocery store during racial strife there a year earlier.
They were collectively sentenced to 282 years in prison, some of which they all served before their sentences were commuted in 1978 by then-Gov. James B. Hunt. The case against them began unraveling two years earlier when the state’s three key witnesses admitted in court that they perjured themselves during the trial; the human rights group Amnesty International declared the Wilmington Ten “political prisoners of conscience” and in March 1977, the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes” uncovered evidence proving the Wilmington Ten were innocent.
Finally, in December 1980, the U.S. Fourth Circuit of Appeals overturned all of the Wilmington Ten convictions, and ordered North Carolina to either retry the defendants, or dismiss all charges. The state did neither, forcing the wrongfully convicted into legal limbo for the next 32 years, and leaving them vulnerable to be retried at any point.
Under North Carolina law, a person legally declared innocent is entitled to $50,000 a year in compensation for every year that they were falsely imprisoned, not exceeding $750,000.
All of the Wilmington Ten were indeed in prison for varying periods ranging from three to seven years, though they were originally sentenced from 15 to 34 years in prison, with Ben Chavis receiving the longest sentence.
But with the state refusing to either retry or dismiss charges for more than three decades, leaving all of the Ten legally exposed, does that constitute a degree of false imprisonment that they should now be compensated for?
In the original clemency papers filed with the governor’s office last year, attorneys Joyner and James Ferguson, the original lead defense attorney for the Wilmington Ten, argued how each member, and their families, have suffered mightily as a result of the negative impact the false convictions have had on their lives.
Willie Earl Vereen never became the doctor he had hoped to become. Connie Tindall, a high school football champion, never made it to the NFL as he’d planned. Other Wilmington Ten members were shunned by their churches when they left prison, and fired from jobs because of their association. And two Wilmington Ten members – Jerry Jacobs and William Joe Wright – died because of diseases they directly contracted while in prison.
Attorney Joyner says his team is looking at every avenue, every argument.
“That is one of the things we’re trying to look at in terms of trying to identify the appropriate theories to go forth,” he told the Journal. “The stronger one is the statutory one where there is a finding of a pardon of innocence, the granting of the pardon of innocence, that they’re entitled to a certain established compensation for each year that they spent in prison. But we’re looking at all angles on this, and we have a team that we’re conferring with now to figure out exactly what is the most appropriate and best strategy to use in going forward.”
Attorney Joyner reiterates that while the focus has now shifted to compensation, 100 percent of the previous effort was about proving the Wilmington Ten innocent. With the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) sponsoring the effort, and the Wilmington Journal taking the lead over the past year, to Joyner’s delight, that monumental task was accomplished
“Obviously I was overjoyed that the governor agreed with our position, and after conducting an extensive examination of the facts, agreed that the persecution of the Wilmington Ten resulted from racism, and a misuse of the criminal justice process by the prosecutor down in New Hanover County,” attorney Joyner said. “Having reached that conclusion, she was compelled to do what she did.”
But opposition to the pardons of innocence was formidable.
Joyner notes “[Forty years ago] the Wilmington Ten case drew support from the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, and they came to the defense of [prosecutor] Jay Stroud and his actions, and the actions of the judge [Robert Martin]…and defended that all the way up through the U.S. Supreme Court, and finally to the [U.S.] Fourth Circuit of Appeals. The individuals who were actively involved in seeking to coverup those actions, and to justify them legally, were also attorneys in Gov. Perdue’s office.”
Attorney Joyner continued, “We were not aware of that at the time that we filed our petition [last May]. But soon after we filed it, we became aware of their presence, and they fought mightily to revive the arguments that they had been making [against us], to no avail.”
Joyner agrees that the subsequent discovery of the Stroud files – the handwritten notes by prosecutor Stroud documenting how he tried to manipulate a predominately-White “KKK and Uncle Tom-type” jury to guarantee a conviction – helped the case immensely.
“The Stroud files were critical, and became the smoking gun about the intentional conduct of the prosecutor,” Joyner said. “It made it hard to argue that we had not presented a compelling case.”
“That’s why it’s more significant that over the advice and direction of the people who were closest to her, [Gov. Perdue] was able to see through the glint and the glam. So there was significant opposition in her office, and also from people in Wilmington – [retired] police officers, firemen…people who were not even there [in 1971] and bought into this public relations campaign that if the Wilmington Ten members did not actually burn Mike’s Grocery, then they knew who did, which was an absurd assertion.”
The battle for just compensation may take months. But the satisfaction of being there for the Wilmington Ten for the past 40 years, and seeing their justice through to the end, is meaningful to attorney Joyner.
“To give to each of those individuals their pardons was a great joy,” the law professor says, looking back to the certificate ceremony a few weeks ago. “Just to look at the expressions on their faces was just overwhelming. In your life as a lawyer, you always look for those moments when you can say that my living has not been in vain, and my work has had some significant meaning in the life of someone.”
Joyner adds, “We had a mighty victory, and the Lord has blessed us.”