The story of the Wilmington Ten Stroud files
Wilmington Ten (Photo credit News and Observer of Raleigh)
By Cash Michaels
From the Wilmington Journal
When 10 separate petitions for pardons of innocence for the Wilmington Ten came before Gov. Beverly Perdue in 2012, some of her closest advisers, in addition to many of North Carolina’s most prominent members of the state’s legal and political communities, strongly urged her not to grant them.
The civil rights activists, led by the fiery Black minister Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., were tried, convicted and sentenced in 1972 for the firebombing of Mike’s Grocery Store and accompanying sniper fire on police and fire fighters the year prior. All of them spent time in prison, and all of them had been denied pardons in 1978 by then-Gov. Jim Hunt.
But even though the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions in December 1980, based on findings of prosecutorial misconduct, the state refused to either retry the Ten, or drop the charges. So all of them, though out of prison, languished in a legal quagmire for more than 30 years that destroyed their lives.
None of the governors during that span of time dared to touch the case, believing that in the minds of most North Carolinians, the Wilmington Ten would remain guilty.
But Gov. Perdue was different. Even though she was a tough law-and-order liberal who had only granted one pardon out of hundreds submitted to her each year of her four-year tenure, she considered the Wilmington Ten case special because at its core was a microcosm of North Carolina’s racial and political history.
It was already known, thanks to the 1980 federal appeals court ruling, that Wilmington Ten prosecutor Jay Stroud had not only paid state witnesses to commit perjury, and had hidden vital information about his chief witness’ questionable mental capacity from the defense, but that all of the state’s witnesses years later admitted in court that they were induced to lie during the 1972 trial.
But that wasn’t enough, apparently, to declare the Wilmington Ten innocent.
It would take more to permanently shut the door of any doubt, and convince Gov. Perdue, who had her legacy in office to consider after announcing that she would not run for re-election in 2012, to grant pardons of innocence to the Wilmington Ten.
Little did Perdue, or anyone else realize, that the additional information she needed to make a different decision from her predecessors had been waiting in a closet at the New Hanover County District Attorney’s Office for the past 40 years.
It was 2008 when D.A. Ben David’s staff found a box labeled “Wilmington Ten – Do not open” in a storage area. Intrigued, David checked to see if there was any pending or active proceedings involving any of the defendants. When nothing turned up, David says he decided to turn custody of the box over to Duke University historian Professor Tim Tyson.
Tyson, the son of Civil Rights Movement veteran Rev. Vernon Tyson, had grown up in Wilmington, and had written extensively on North Carolina Black history. He was planning to write a book on the Wilmington Ten, and had worked in concert with Ben David on special Black history classes at Williston Junior High School.
David gave the box to Tyson for research, but Tyson didn’t immediately examine it. However, when an aide inspected the box and described its contents, Tyson was astounded.
Among the standard legal documents common to any criminal case, were notes written by New Hanover County Prosecutor James “Jay” Stroud, notes that suggested not only that he tried desperately to impanel a jury for the first June 1972 trial that consisted of “KKK” Whites and “Uncle Tom” Blacks, but also worked hard to prevent Black men from becoming jurors, and any Blacks who read The Wilmington Journal, the Black newspaper that had advocated for the Wilmington Ten.
Stroud’s notes of “KKK… good” next to certain names, and warning at the top of one legal pad jury selection page to “Stay away from Black men” revealed a clear intent to racially gerrymander the jury.
But when the final jury impaneled consisted of 10 Blacks and two Whites, it was Stroud’s notes on the back of that legal pad, listing the “disadvantages” and “advantages” of causing a mistrial, that left no doubt that Stroud then plotted to manipulate the system by stopping the June 1972 trial, and starting over again.
That’s exactly what happened when Stroud claimed to have become sick, causing the judge to declare a mistrial. When the second trial commenced in September 1972, Stroud got his wish – Ten Whites and two Blacks were impaneled, and the Wilmington Ten were all convicted based on false testimony and no incriminating evidence.
Tyson knew what he had was explosive, and had begun to continue his research for a book that was sure to be impactful. But in 2011, the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), at the urging of Wilmington Journal Publisher Mary Alice Thatch, voted to pursue pardons of innocence for the Wilmington Ten.
Many people had assumed that the overturning of the convictions by the federal appeals court in 1980 ended the matter, not realizing that the Wilmington Ten, even 40 years after the fact, were still subject to arrest and trial because the charges were never dropped.
They were all still felons in the eyes of North Carolina law, and only one person on the face of the Earth, Gov. Beverly Perdue, could clear their names forever.
Only after the Wilmington Ten Pardons Project was formed in 2012, and Professor Tyson was called on just to help with general research into the case, did he unexpectedly reveal the existence of the Stroud files, and their explosive contents to the project.
After a quick review of sample pages, it was decided by project attorney Irving Joyner, who was part of the original Wilmington Ten defense team 40 years prior, to recruit the Ten’s lead defense attorney Jim Ferguson, and thoroughly research the entire contents of the Stroud files box, cross referencing them with the criminal files at the Pender County Courthouse, where the trails had taken place in 1972.
After the pardons petition was filed in May 2012, Joyner and Ferguson continued their research through that summer, finally releasing their findings of confirmation that September.
NNPA newspapers, led by The Wilmington Journal, broke the story of the Stroud files then, but it wouldn’t be until November, with the leadership of the North Carolina NAACP and its president, Rev. William Barber, that the statewide and national press picked up on the importance of the Stroud files.
The resulting publicity from the august New York Times created an avalanche of support for the Wilmington Ten to be pardoned, and on Dec. 31, 2012, Gov. Perdue, citing the Stroud files as evidence of “naked racism” in North Carolina’s criminal justice system that should never happen again, granted pardons of innocence to Wayne Moore, Reginald Epps, Ann Sheppard, Willie Earl Vereen, William Joe Wright, Jerry Jacobs, Connie Tindall, James “Bun” McKoy, Marvin “Chili” Patrick and Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.
“Contrary to what I saw as the right thing, I had a group of advisers; close friends; jurists that I brought in from across the state; lawyers, because I’m not a lawyer; and other professionals, who told me absolutely not to do this. That I couldn’t prove that the Wilmington Ten were innocent. I couldn’t prove that,” Gov. Perdue says during an exclusive interview for the film, Pardons of Innocence: The Wilmington Ten.
“[But] I could prove that the DA [Stroud] had lied. I could prove that there was racial profiling in how they selected the jury. I could prove that three of the witnesses recanted their testimony. I could prove all of that, so I just thought to myself, what do I believe is right?”
There can be no question now, more than a year later, that if not for the discovery of the Stroud files, and the wisdom of both DA Ben David and Professor Tim Tyson in preserving them, the Wilmington Ten might never have seen justice.
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