RALEIGH — State NAACP leaders held up old notes from the prosecutor of the racially charged Wilmington 10 case on Tuesday to bolster renewed calls for a gubernatorial pardon.
The notes appear to be those of Jay Stroud, a former assistant district attorney for New Hanover and Pender counties, who led the 1972 prosecution of nine men and one woman whose cases drew international attention from human and civil rights organizations.
Though newly discovered, the pages from the yellow legal pad offer a look back to a time in North Carolina when firebombing and violence flared from racial tensions.
The Rev. William Barber, head of the state chapter of the NAACP, describes the notes as newly discovered evidence of “blatant acts of racism” and of racial profiling used in jury selection process – a tactic forbidden by law.
What seems to be a list of potential jurors is topped by the note: “Stay away from black men.” Next to names on the legal pad are cryptic assessments by the prosecutor.
Appearing in parentheses beside one name is “KKK?” Next to that notation is the word “good,” also in parentheses. Another name is followed by: “(O.K.) (KKK?).” After another name, written in parentheses: “knows, sensible, Uncle Tom type.” Some names are preceded by the letter “B”, which NAACP leaders read as an indication that the potential juror was black.
“This new evidence is a nightmare,” Barber said. “Entrenched racism polluted the process.”
Despite the notes, the jury that was seated consisted of 10 blacks and two whites. The trial ended in a mistrial after the prosecutor became ill. A second trial, which included a jury of 10 whites and two blacks, ended in convictions.
Firebombing in time of strife
The Wilmington 10 is a case rooted in New Hanover County four decades ago.
The public schools had just been integrated, and the city was filled with dueling civil rights advocates and white supremacists.
In February 1971, firefighters and police rushed to Mike’s Grocery, a white-owned store in a predominantly black neighborhood. The store had been firebombed. As emergency workers responded, shots were fired, and a volley of allegations echoed across the coastal town.
Prosecutors contended that Ben Chavis, a young, black civil-rights leader from Oxford; Ann Sheppard Turner, a white federal anti-poverty worker; and eight black Wilmington high school students were responsible for the fiery violence.
The accused and their supporters maintained their innocence and argued that they were being framed for trouble they had not sparked.
Charges were filed. The case went to trial twice, with the first ending in mistrial.
In 1972, after seven weeks of testimony in a Burgaw courthouse, a jury of 10 whites and two blacks convicted the nine men of unlawful burning and conspiracy to assault emergency personnel. Turner, the anti-poverty worker, was convicted of being an accessory to firebombing.
The 10 began serving prison sentences in 1976, after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear their appeal.
Then, key witnesses for the prosecution began to recant statements they made at trial, raising more questions about the case and raising the profile of the Wilmington 10 among international human rights and civil rights organizations.
In 1978, the U.S. Department of Justice asked a federal judge to overturn the convictions, and in 1980, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did so, raising questions about prosecutorial misconduct and the fairness of the trial.
Charges of prosecutorial bias
No new trial has been held, but the 10 accused, some who have since died, have never been fully exonerated in the state that threw their lives into turmoil.
Barber contends the prosecutor’s notes, uncovered in a box in the New Hanover County District Attorney’s Office recently and handed over to the NAACP a month ago by someone whose identity was not revealed, are evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.
But New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David said he turned over a box of materials from the case to North Carolina historian Tim Tyson several years ago, saying, “This file belongs not to my office, but to history.”
Not only did the list of potential jurors for the trial that ended in mistrial have the letter “B” in the margin by some names, indicating black, it also included assessments in parentheses referring to many black neighborhoods.
Written on the back of a legal pad were 14 points on the advantages and disadvantages of mistrial.
Stroud, who was disbarred in 2006 for unrelated issues, could not be reached for comment. David said he did not know where Stroud was, but he added that he would not tolerate the striking of potential jurors based on race.
“To exclude anyone from a jury on the basis of race is unconstitutional and wholly unacceptable, and we do not condone that behavior here,” David said.
Looking to Perdue for pardon
Irving Joyner, a defense lawyer on the case and a longtime N.C. Central University law professor, said he and others pored over many documents from the case files to determine whether the notes were written by Stroud. He told a gathering of reporters in First Baptist Church in downtown Raleigh that the documents were “evidence” of prosecutorial “shenanigans that went on behind the scenes” in the case.
“We are absolutely confident that these are the notes of Prosecutor Stroud,” Joyner said.
The NAACP passed along their findings to Gov. Bev Perdue to weigh with a request for pardoning the Wilmington 10.
It is unclear whether Perdue will issue any pardons in her last weeks in office.