North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue pardoned Ben Chavis four decades after he was wrongfully sent to prison following a racially biased Civil Rights-era prosecution, according to The Charlotte Observer. Perdue, with just five days remaining in office, issued full pardons of innocence for Chavis and nine others who are known as the Wilmington 10.
“It’s been a long, arduous – and at times, torturous – 40 years,” Chavis said. “But this is a joyous day.”
Chavis went to Wilmington in 1971 as the head of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice. He was arrested that same year along with eight other black men and a white woman. They all were accused of firebombing a grocery store owned by white people in a black neighborhood in Wilmington. Those arrested had also been accused of shooting at emergency personnel who responded to the fire.
All of those accused in the case denied their roles in the fire and the shooting, but were convicted of arson and conspiracy anyway, sending them all to prison. The full pardon of innocence shows that North Carolina does not believe that any of the 10 committed a crime. Perdue said she spent months reviewing the request for the pardons before she finally made her decision.
“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,” Perdue said in a statement. “These cases generate a great deal of emotion from people who lived through these traumatic events.”
In January of 1978, while the cases were being appealed, Governor Jim Hunt commuted the sentences, but withheld a pardon. Then, in 1980, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions in the case. The court cited prosecutorial misconduct and denials of due process. Prosecutors from the state did not ask for a new trial, but an acquittal never came.
“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,” Perdue said.
In a statement released Monday by Perdue, she said, “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.”
Chavis learned of the pardons while in his office in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on Monday.
“We deeply appreciate and take note of the tremendous courage of Gov. Perdue,” Chavis said. “We know it was not easy. It was a controversial case 40 years ago, and it still is a controversial case today. I want to, on this day of celebration, to recommit ourselves to civil rights for all – to recommit ourselves to justice for all. Truthfully, it should not have taken 40 years to get to this day. Sometimes the wheels of justice grind slowly, but they can eventually grind smoothly. We have justice today.”