TWICE IN RECENT presidential press conferences, questions have been asked about the case of the Wilmington 10. Both times, Mr. Carter expressed hope "that justice will prevail." And both times he declined to offer a specific view on the group's claim that, to date, justice blatantly has not prevailed. At the moment, the nine black men (one white woman has been paroled) are in North Carolina prisons following their convictions for arson and conspiracy during racial turmoil in Wilmington in 1971. None had a record of violent crime. Yet the sentences could keep some of the group behind walls well into the 1990s and, in one case, into the next century.
The current notoriety of the case is the result of a slow buildup of concern about the methods used by North Carolina officials in prosecuting and trying the group. At first, it was mostly a few state and national journalists who persisted in the belief that something profoundly unjust had been done to the group in the name of justice. Eventually, Congress became involved. In 1975, Rep. Robert Kastenmeier (D-Wis.) chairman of the House subcommittee on courts, civil liberties and the administration of justice, said that the conviction of one of the 10 - Ben Chavis - "may have resulted from the highly questionable testimony of paid informers and that the government's interest in prosecuting him may have been politically motivated." In May 1976, members of the Black Caucus investigated the case and came away with grave doubts. Another congressional delegation went to the state a few weeks ago, and it, too, was deeply troubled.
Amnesty International now lists the Wilmington 10 on its roster of worldwide political prisoners. Throughout the case, the United Church of Christ's Commission on Racial Justice has provided much of the financial backing needed for the continuing litigation. As for the charges of Rufus L. Edmisten, North Carolina's attorney general, that "the national press has been totally irresponsible in reporting the facts or unfacts about all this" (quoted in the Raleigh News and Observer in April 1977), we invite his attention to the newspapers of this own state. About a year ago, the Greensboro Daily News wrote: "The evidence now suggests, at the least, that [the Wilmington 10] did not receive the fair trial to which they were entitled. They should get it." The Charlotte Observer said: "The furor over the case. . . refuses to die. Judging from the curious, even suspicious, facts that continue to come to light, it shouldn't."
It is hard to believe that so many groups - from state newspapers to congressional committees to Amnesty International - are raising a clamor for no good reason. On the contrary, some rather compelling reasons for the clamor can be found in a list of irregularities during and after the trial. Some prosecution witnesses have recanted their testimony. Of the others, one told of being promised - and of receiving - gifts from the prosecutor. On the other side, witnesses have come forward to say that several of the 10 were far from the scene when the fire originally occured. All of this, and more, led the Greensboro Daily News to conclude last May that "were the state to attempt to retry the Wilmington 10 today, it would fall flat."
It has also led the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department to respond. At the moment, it is considering the possibilities of involving itself either in a pending case in the State Court of Appeals (the group is appealing a lower court's refusal to order a new trial) or, if that fails, a habeas corpus petition in federal court. Although President Carter is remaining neutral, the Justice Department is on record as saying that "the quality of justice" in North Carolina is open to question because of the "many irregularities" in the case. Near the center of this storm is North Carolina's governor, James B. Hunt Jr. He has no power to order a new trial, but he can pardon the 10 or commute their sentences to time already served. A third option is to do nothing. But it seems to us that, at the very least, the governor would have an obligation to explain away the numerous and large doubts that continue to surround the case. And if that can be done in any persuasive way, we would have thought that it would have been done a long time ago.