A GREAT MANY people who looked closely at the case of the Wilmington 10 have been deeply distressed by what they found. But, unfortunately, the officials of North Carolina who could do something about it were not among their number. The footprints of injustice, however, are all over both the trial and the sentencing of those civil-rights activists. So it is good news that the Department of Justice, in a highly unusual move, has asked a federal judge to let it intervene on behalf of the Wilmington 10 in an effort to get their convictions set aside.

No doubt the national and international publicity the case received has had something to do with the department's decision. Citizen's groups and newspapers, in and out of North Carolina, have examined the legal processes involved and judged them unfair. Amnesty International categorized the Wilmington 10 as political prisoners, having concluded that they would not have been convicted of arson and conspiracy had it not been for their political beliefs. Amnesty's action made the case an embarrassing counterpoint to President Carter's human-rights campaign. But until now the federal government had not found an opportunity to do anything about it. The opportunity arose because the case, after six years of litigation, finally moved from the state courts to the federal courts.

The department claims in its brief that the case is unique. Not only have the three key prosecution witnesses recanted their testimony and asserted that they were offered some inducement to testify as they did, but independent evidence also exists to corroborate their original untruthfulness and to show they were given special treatment by the prosecution.

These claims are not new; the defendants have been saying as much for years. But what the department is offering the federal judge in the way of further corroboration is new. During an FBI investigation last year, the department obtained a copy of an annotated statement says that, if they had been, they would have undermined the credibility of the trial's most important testimony.

This material, in our view, provides the federal judge with exactly what he needs to set the case right. If the department's analysis of the document is accurate - and there is no reason to suspect otherwise, even though it was submited to the judge without having been made public - the convictions can quite properly be set aside and a new trial ordered. North Carolina could then, if it chose, try the case again, although the odds against a second conviction would be extremely high, or it could drop the matter. Either course would remove a blight that now exists on the administration of justice in this country.