Ten civil rights activists imprisoned following racial disturbances in Wilmington, N.C., seven years ago have lost their last attempt in North Carolina courts to overturn their convictions and gain their freedom.
In a six-line statement released without fanfare, the state Court of Appeals declined late Wednesday to review a lower court judge's decision last year not to grant a new trial to the nine black men and one white woman convicted in connection with the 1971 firebombing of a grocery store.
The woman is free on parole, but the men, most of them in their early 20s, are serving sentences of 20 to 29 years.
Defense lawyers sought at a post-conviction hearing last year to win a new trial primarily on grounds that the three chief prosecution witnesses had recanted their testimony. But the major prosecution witness, Alan Ray Hall, a burly youth, changed his story again and reaffirmed his initial testimony, and the judge refused to grant a new trial.
Charlotte attorney James Ferguson, chief defense lawyer, said today he wyuld challenge the appeals court decision in U.S. District Court here. Under North Carolina law, the decision cannot be appealed to the state supreme court. But Ferguson, who acknowledged that the new round of litigation could take years, appealed to Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. to act on a petition submitted early this year seeking pardons for the 10.
Hunt, who has come under increasing pressure to intervene, especially from outside North Carolina, would not discuss the appeals court ruling today. The case, which has attracted national and international attention, is widely viewed as a politically sensitive matter for Hunt, who has sought to establish himself as a progressive, politically moderate "New South" governor since taking office last year.
During his political career, he had led efforts to open up the state Democratic Party to blacks and women. Since becoming governor, he has appointed blacks and women to key administration posts which, under past governors, were the exclusive province of white men.
Hunt has instructed his legal counsel to gather information on the Wilmington 10, but he has steadfastly refused to say what, if anything, he might do. His options include issuing a pardon of innocence and commuting or reducing their sentences.
Supporters of the 10 have mounted an aggressive campaign for their release in recent months, amid growing signs of political and racial divisions whithin the state.
The governor's office has received more mail on this than on any other state issue - as many as 75 letters a week. Gubernatorial aides say opinion is about evenly split, although they say a majority of the letters supporting the Wilmington 10 do not come from North Carolina voters. One writer recently scribbled a plea on behalf of the group from his mental asylum in France.
From Shelby, N.C., a mill town in the central Piedmont, came some different advice for the governor.
"For God's sake," the writer said, "please do not grant a pardon to the Wilmington 10. If we keep letting the blacks do what they think is their 'rights' they'll ruin the state and nation."