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Pardon the Wilmington Ten

Guest Columnist | , George E. Curry | 5/17/2012, 4:11 p.m.

Of the seven years I was editor of Emerge: Black America's Newsmagazine in the 1990s, I am proudest of our national campaign to win the release of Kemba Smith, a 24-year-old former Hampton University student who was sentenced to a mandatory 24 1/2 years in prison for her minor role in a drug ring.

Our first story, written by Reginald Stuart in May 1996, featured a high school graduation photo of Kemba, decked in cap and gown, with the words: "Kemba's Nighmare: A Model Student Becomes Prisoner #26370-083." We published two additional stories on Kemba, both written by Stuart.

The original Emerge story caught the attention of Elaine Jones, then director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She began representing Kemba in court and eventually filed a petition for clemency. In late 2000, President Bill Clinton granted LDF's request and Kemba was released after serving 7 1/2 years in federal prison.

I've said all along that Kemba wasn't the only victim of our criminal injustice system. Add the Wilmington Ten to that list.

Most Black newspapers are carrying a NNPA News Service story this week by Cash Michaels of the Wilmington Journal describing a national campaign to win pardons for the Wilmington Ten - nine African-Americans and a White female - unfairly convicted in connection with urban unrest. The NNPA is helping spearhead this movement.

In a nutshell, racial strife accompanied the desegregation of New Hanover County, N.C. schools. The all-Black high school was closed under the desegregation plan and its students were transferred to the previously all-White high school, where they received a hostile reception.

In February 1971, the United Church of Christ assigned Benjamin Chavis Jr., a native of Oxford, N.C., to help students organize a school boycott.

Amid the racial turmoil, someone firebombed Mike's Grocery, a White-owned business located a block away from Gregory Congregational Church, where Chavis had set up headquarters. When fire fighters and police officers arrived on the scene, they were attacked by snipers stationed on the roof of the church. At the time, Chavis and other activists had barricaded themselves inside the building. A riot erupted the next day that resulted in two deaths and six injuries.

Chavis and nine others were charged and convicted of arson and conspiracy in connection with the firebombing incident. Most of the defendants received a sentence of 29 years, with Ann Shepard, the White woman from Auburn, N.Y., receiving the lightest sentence of 15 years and 24-year-old Chavis getting the longest sentence, 34 years.

All nine maintained that they were innocent. In 1980, a federal appeals court overturned their convictions, noting that the trial judge restricted defense attorneys from cross-examining witnesses who had received special treatment in exchange for their testimony against the Wilmington Ten.

Defense attorneys, in their petition to reverse the convictions, noted that the prosecutor failed to disclose "inducement for testimony and special favorable treatment offered to each of three important witnesses including leniency, accommodations at a beach hotel and beach cottage paid for by the prosecution, an expense-paid trip for the girlfriend of the chief witness, and the gift of a mini-bike made after the trial."