A six-member congressional delegation spent the day here seeking freedom for the Wilmington 10, but the group was rebuffed in an effort to meet North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., who has been petitioned to pardon the 10.
The governor, saying Sundays were reserved for his family, sent three top aides instead to discuss the controversial case with the group, which included Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Del. Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.).
On Thursday, when the visit was first disclosed, a Raleigh newspaper quoted Mitchell as saying the governor's refusal to meet with the group irritated him. "I think that if the governor of North Carolina was coming into my state, and said, 'Look, I want to meet with you,' as a matter of simple courtesy I'd rearrange my schedule no matter what the issue was, Mitchell said.
But today, the congressmen took a more conciliatory approach. There was no sharp criticism of the governor. And Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), who organized the trip, told aides to the governor. "We don't feel like carpetbaggers and you're not treating us like carpetbaggers."
The Wilmington 10 are nine black men and a white woman convicted in 1972 of burning property and conspiring to assault emergency personnel during racial unrest in the port city of Wilmington, N.C., in 1971. All but the woman are serving lengthy prison terms of up to 34 years.
pointing to conflicting statements by a key prosecution witness and other evidence, critics of the case have said the 10 some of whom were civil rights activists, were unfairly convicted and that their sentences were much too long. The U.S. Supreme Court has turned down one appeal but defense lawyers are still seeking release in both federal and state courts.
Edwards who chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, has also led efforts to get the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in the case.
Gov. Hunt has not taken a position in the case. He could pardon the group, or commute or reduce their sentences, but he has said he will not act until all legal appeals have been exhausted. Aides to the governor reiterated that position today, although they told the visiting congressmen that information is being gathered about the case, especially the length of the sentences.
Besides Mitchell, Fauntroy and Edwards the others who flew here were Reps. Fortney Stark and George Miller both California Democrats, and Robert F. Drinan (D-Mass).
In addition to the meeting with the governor's aides, members of the group discussed the case with defense lawyers, met with two of the Wilmington 10 who are incarcerated in a Raleigh prison, visited several churches to make statements on behalf of the imprisoned and held a press conference.
"Don't destroy my faith, because I honestly want to believe in my gut that there has been a transformation in our Southern states," Mitchell told the governor's aides.