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Advocates For "Wilmington Ten" Seek Pardons

A group of people who say they were wrongfully convicted of arson more than forty years ago in Wilmington are asking Governor Bev Perdue for an official pardon before she leaves office. The “Wilmington Ten,” as they are known, served prison time for an arson that took place as race riots inflamed the city. The convictions were later overturned by the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. But the state of North Carolina has not pardoned the group.

Audio Transcript
Jessica Jones: This morning, 59-year-old Willie Vereen walked to the door of North Carolina’s historic Capitol building with a huge sheaf of papers tucked under his arm. The Governor’s general counsel met him right outside the main door.

Willie Vereen and Mark Davis: Pleasure to meet you, Willie Vereen. Hey Willie, I’m Mark Davis, it’s a pleasure to meet you.

Vereen, dressed to ward off the winter chill in a suit and long overcoat, held out a bulging folder with more than 14 thousand signatures for the governor to see.

Vereen and Davis: Understand you have a petition for us. Yes sir. Thank you very much I really appreciate it. Thank you very much. We will review it carefully and thank you for coming today.

Vereen and others who’re advocating for the Wilmington Ten hope Governor Perdue will consider granting them a pardon. Back in 1971, police arrested two adults and eight black high school students, accusing them of firebombing a grocery store in Wilmington. The arson took place amidst riots that started after the courts ordered schools to desegregate. A jury of ten whites and two blacks convicted Vereen and the others. Vereen says none of them ever thought they’d be convicted.

Vereen: We didn’t testify because our attorneys felt like the state didn’t have a case. They didn’t see a case.

Like the others, Vereen has always maintained his innocence. He says he left Wilmington’s downtown well before the fire started to play a gig with an R and B band. He and advocates for the Wilmington Ten say the police threw together a list of suspects they felt they could blame for the crime. The state NAACP has recently publicized evidence from the case’s public files. It says notes show the assistant district attorney at the time engaged in racial profiling to select a jury. But the U.S. Fourth Circuit recognized the case was faulty long ago. The convictions were overturned in 1980, after the group had already spent years in prison.

Reverend William Barber: We’re thirty two years behind. And too many of them have died, we can’t give them back their life.

Reverend William Barber heads the state NAACP.

Barber: We can’t give them back their educational opportunity, we can’t give them back the sleepless nights they’ve had, the struggles they’ve had, we can’t give them back any of that. But this governor has the opportunity to right this wrong.

Four of the Wilmington Ten have already died, including Anne Shepphard Turner, the only white member of the group. She was a social worker employed by a federal anti-poverty organization. Her daughter, Judy Mack, says she was only a girl when her mother was taken to prison.

Judy Mack: She explained it to us that while she loved us and never wanted to be separated from us that she was going to have to go away from us for a while, but she was doing it for her girls and her future grandchildren.

Mack says her mother wasn’t bitter about the conviction. She wishes her mom were here today so she could ask the governor for a pardon in person. But other members of the group say their guilty verdicts changed them forever. Willie Vereen says four decades ago, he never thought he would be convicted of the crime, the same way he believed in one of his favorite books from childhood.

Vereen: In that book it said that the policeman was your friend, the doctor was your friend, so when they arrested me, I just knew that they would find out that we were innocent or speaking for myself I was innocent. But that never came about.

The governor hasn’t addressed the case of the Wilmington Ten specifically. But she has said that she will evaluate each case for clemency on its own merits.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.
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