RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Outgoing North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue issued pardons Monday to the Wilmington 10, a group wrongly convicted 40 years ago in a notorious Civil Rights-era prosecution that led to accusations that the state was holding political prisoners.
Perdue issued pardons of innocence Monday for the nine black men and one white woman who received prison sentences totaling nearly 300 years for the 1971 firebombing of a Wilmington grocery store during three days of violence that included the shooting of a black teenager by police.
The pardon means the state no longer thinks the 10 - four of whom have since died - committed a crime.
"I have decided to grant these pardons because the more facts I have learned about the Wilmington Ten, the more appalled I have become about the manner in which their convictions were obtained," Perdue said in a news release Monday.
The three key witnesses in the case later recanted their testimony. Amnesty International and other groups took up the issue, portraying the Wilmington 10 as political prisoners.
In 1978, then-Gov. Jim Hunt commuted their sentences but withheld a pardon. Two years later, 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.
"We are tremendously grateful to Gov. Perdue for her courage," said Benjamin Chavis, the former national NAACP executive director who was in jail and prison for about five years before his release. "This is a historic day for North Carolina and the United States. People should be innocent until proven guilty, not persecuted for standing up for equal rights and justice."
In addition to Chavis, the surviving members of the Wilmington 10 are Reginald Epps, James McKoy, Wayne Moore, Marvin Patrick and Willie Earl Vereen. Those who have died are Jerry Jacobs, Ann Shepard, Connie Tindall, and Joe Wright.
The bombing of the white-owned Mike's Grocery occurred less than three years after the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Schools in Wilmington and New Hanover County hadn't desegregated, and black students began a boycott.
The United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, for whom Chavis worked, sent him to Wilmington to advise the students. On Feb. 6, 1971, the white-owned Mike's Grocery was firebombed, and police killed a black teenager that night. A day later, a white man was shot and killed.
The National Guard then moved in to end the violence.
The Wilmington 10 were convicted in October 1972 on charges of conspiracy to firebomb Mike's Grocery and conspiracy to assault emergency personnel who responded to the fire.
The trial was held in Burgaw in Pender County after a judge declared a mistrial the first time. A jury of 10 blacks and two whites had been seated in the first trial when prosecutor Jay Stroud said he was sick, and the judge declared the mistrial. At the second trial, a jury of 10 whites and two blacks was seated.
The three key witnesses who took the stand for the prosecution recanted their testimony in 1976. And the prosecutor, Stroud, became a flashpoint for the Wilmington 10 supporters.
In November, NAACP state leaders said they believe newly uncovered notes show Stroud tried to keep blacks off the first jury and seat whites he thought were sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan.
They showed the notes on a poster board, saying the handwriting on the legal paper appeared to match notes from other prosecution records in the case.
At the top of the list of 100 jurors, the notes said, "stay away from black men." A capital "B'' was beside the names of black jurors. The notes identify one potential black juror as an "Uncle Tom type," and beside the names of several white people, notations include "KKK?" and "good!!"
"This conduct is disgraceful," Perdue 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."
Stroud told the StarNews of Wilmington that he wrote some of the notes but declined to confirm that to the AP in November. On Monday, he told the AP that he wouldn't have written "stay away from black men," and said someone could have forged the notes.
The N.C. State Bar lists Stroud as a former defense attorney whose status is inactive at his request. Stroud has been arrested more than a dozen times in the past six years, and his son told The Gaston Gazette in 2011 that his father suffers with bipolar disease and that he was diagnosed about the same time he graduated from law school.
"I think she has made a mistake," Stroud said of Perdue on Monday. "The case was prosecuted fairly, and the jury reached a unanimous verdict fairly quickly after a six-week trial. And they found all 10 defendants unanimously guilty of all charges. And I think her decision is flying in the face of the jury's verdict."
Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker in Raleigh contributed to this story.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.