The Rev. Ben Chavis, a civil rights activist serving a 34-year state prison term here, says he is "filled with hope" because of an action taken by the Justice Department.
Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, whose recent Senate confirmation was strongly opposed by some civil rights groups, has promised a "very active, high priority" investigation into the WIlmington 10 case - a national cause celebre in which Chavis is a major figure.
The investigation could mean a new trial for the black United Church of Christ minister and nine other persons who went sent to jail with him on convictions stemming from school desegregation-related violence in Wilmington, N.C., in February, 1971.
This six-year-old case, which has dragged through state and federal courts, evokes memories of the celebrated Joan Little murder trial in that it has raised serious questions about the quality of justice for blacks and poor people in North Carolina.
And like the Little trial - in which a black female prison inmate was accused of murdering a white jailer whom she said he tried to rape her - the Wilmington 10 story has attracted national news media attention.
Chavis, 34, who was asked by North Carolina officials to come into Wilmington to help quell the 1971 disturbance, said he is putting all of his hopes for freedom on the Justice Department investigation.
"If there will be any for justice in the Wilmington 10 case, it will be through federal intervention," he said during an interview in the warden's office of the McCain correctional unit.
Chavis said that despite a concurrent state investigation into the matter, he has little hope that the state is truly interested in examining the circumstances surrounding the case.
"The state is still very vindictive . . . the justice system in North Carolina in racist to the bone," he charged.
The Justice Department probe began late last month, partly because of "new" evidence that has been a matter of record in the North Carolina courts since last Oct. 20. That evidence is a sworn statement by Allen Hall, 23, the chief prosecution witness, who says he was forced by law enforcement officials to perjure himself in order to gain convictions of the Wilmington 10.
That evidence also includes a sworn statement made earlier this month by another major procesution witness, Eric Junious, now 17, who said law enforcement officials promised him a minibike and a job if he testified against the group. Junious, who is now in prison on chargese of breaking and entering, says both promises were kept after he testified.
In addition, several persons unwilling or unable to testify at the Wilmington 10 trial have offered information in the past few months contradicting testimony that helped to convict the group. These persons, who said they would be willing to testify at a new trial, include the Revs. Aaron J. Johnson and Eugene Templton and Phiadelphian social worker Patricia Rhodes.
Johnson was a member of the State Good Neighbor Council (now the North Carolina Human Relations Commission), which requested that Chavis be sent to Wilmington in February, 1971, to help control the town's growing racial tension.
Johnson repeated yesterday his earlier claim that the council had documents showing that Chavis and the other dependants were trying to act as peacemakers at the time of the disturbance. Johnson said he and other council members were traveling from Raleigh to deliver the documents to defense lawyers arguing the case in Burgaw, N. C., about 120 miles away, when they heard on the car radio that the defense had rested its case.
The council members had been subponaed by the defense to testify. "But so far as I know, they never knew that we had received the subpoenas and never knew we were on our way with the records," Johnson said. The records were never delivered.
The minister said the records mysteriously disappeared from the council's files a month after the defendants had been sentenced.
Templeton was pastor of Wilmington's Gregory Congregational Church, the organizing center for the town's black, during the racial unrest. The young, white minister now lives in Florhan Park, N. J. He has said on several occasions that he and his wife did not return to Wilmington to testify at the 1972 trial because they feared arrest.
Templton has told Wilmington 10 supporters that he would be willing to testify at a new trial that Chavis and at least four other defendants were with him in the church's personage at the time they allegedly were engaged in burning a neighborhood store and shooting at police and firemen.
The Charlotte (N.C.) News and Observer has reported that Rhodes, who was working in Wilmington at the time of the trouble, would be willing to offer similar testimony at a new trial.
Member of the Congressional Black Caucus, especially Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), and representatives of the Washington-based National Wilmington 10 Defense Committee appealed to Bell to take a close look at the case because of the new evidence.
After a Feb. 2 meeting with the defense group Bell asked the Justice Department civil rights chief, J. Stanley Pottinger, to give the investigation top priority. Pottinger said the department has been looking into the new evidence for about three weeks before Bell's order. But at the Attorney General's request, Pottinger said he asked FBI Director Clarence M. Kelley to step up the investigation.
It's a serious matter when a key witness says, I lied,' "Pottinger said. This is not a third-party allegation. This is the witness himself [Hall] . . . We're trying to determine if he perjured himself in a material way and if there is a need for an new trial."
The orginial trial of the Wilmington 10 ended Oct. 18, 1972, almost one year after the desegregation disturbance occurred. All but one member of the group, Ann Shepard Turner, the lone white defendant, were convicted of firebombing a white-owned grocery store and of conspiring to assault police and firemen. They received prison sentences ranging from 29 to 34 years - sentences considered unusually severe for the offenses, especially in as much as most of the defendants were high school students with no previous criminal records.
Turner was sentenced to 10 years on a charge of conspircy to commit arson. All members of the group began serving their sentences Feb. 2, 1976, after being free on bail for five years pending the outcome of appeals.
The blacks are still in prison. Turner was released on parole on Jan. 18.
Hall's trial testimony that he heard Chavis urge the group to carry out the firebombing and that he saw Chavis and the other engaging in violence is credited by both defense and prosecution with bringing about the convictions.
The chief defense lawyer, James Ferguson of Charlotte, N.C., hopes that Hall's recantation will be just as devastating. In it, Hall is quoted as saying that state and local law enforcement official s threatened him with bodily harm long prison terms if he refused to cooperate with them. Hall was charged with arson in the same case. He served one year in prison as a result of those charges.
Hall also charged in his recantation that authorities attempted to exploit his personal dislike of Chavis.
"They told me what to say in court because I had gotten mad and I had said for them to just give me a gun, and that I would kill Chavis," Hall is quoted as sayingin his sworn statement. He said he was angry with Charvis because the minister has allegedly made threats against his family.
"And so [Jay] Stroud [the prosecutor] said no . . . You couldn't kill him because if you kill him they would investigate because he is in the civil rights movement. And so then they said that the best way to get him is through the law," Hall is quoted as saying in his statement.
Hall, a black, has made similar unofficial charges in letters, and phone calls to Chavis' family and supporters.
Stroud, a white native of Wilmington who was assistant district attorney of Hanover County at the time of the trial, has vigorously denied Hall's charges.
"It was the best-put-together evidence I've ever had in a criminal case," said Stroud, who was 29 at the time he prosecuted the Wilmington 10. "We supported Allen Hall's testimony, but they [the Wilmington 10 lawyers] can't produce anything to support his recantation," he contended.
Stroud's confidence may come from the fact that Hall's reputation for honesty and mental stability was never very high. For example, he was convicted last week for breaking and entering and parole violations. And on Jan. 16, while awaiting trial on the latest criminal charges against him, he attempted to hang himself in his jail cell at Central Prison. However, it is because of Halls questionable credibility that Chavis and his supporters believe he should never have been put on the witness stand in the first place.
"He's as much a victim of the state justice system as we are. I have nothing but compassion for him," Chavis said.
The minister still holds the title of director of the District of Columbia office of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, which has poured nearly $500,000 into the defense of the WIlmington 10.
Chavis, a father of three, said he would return full time to the commission job if and when he is released from prison. In the meantime, he said he will conduct his ministry within the confines of the McCain correctional unit - a single, two-story, dormitory-like building that is a hospital and diagnostic testing center for physically infirm inmates.
"I have to take care of my neighbors, and right now my neighbors are these prisoners," Chavis said.