RALEIGH — Willie Earl Vereen, who was in high school four decades ago when his life was turned upside down by the racially charged Wilmington 10 case, went to the governors office on Friday with 14,000 signatures backing his request for a pardon.
Vereen is one of the so-called Wilmington 10 nine men and one woman whose cases drew international attention from human and civil rights groups.
In February 1971, firefighters and police rushed to Mikes Grocery, a white-owned store in a predominantly black neighborhood in Wilmington. 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 seven other black Wilmington high school students with Vereen were responsible for the fiery violence.
The accused maintained their innocence and argued that they were being framed for trouble they had not sparked.
Nevertheless, charges were filed. The case went to trial twice, with the first ending in mistrial, and the second in convictions.
Three key witnesses later recanted their testimony and in 1980, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the convictions, citing prosecutorial misconduct and perjury as factors.
Though North Carolina never retried any of the Wilmington 10, the state never cleared their records.
Last month, the state chapter of the NAACP and other civil rights advocates presented old notes from the prosecutor in the case. The pages from the legal pad showed what seemed to be a list of potential jurors and evidence of racial profiling in jury selection a tactic forbidden by law.