THE DECISION of North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. to reduce the sentences of the Wilmington 10 strikes us as an unsatisfactory solution. Compelling arguments existed for a more generous approach, based on the considerable amount of evidence that as the Justice Department has noted, "many irregularities" cropped up in the prosecution and trials of the group. In choosing to reduce the sentences of nine black men (one of the group, a white woman, has been paroled), Gov. Hunt conceded that the original sentences for arson and conspiracy were excessive. That is something, at least. But even here, questions are raised. The sentence of Ben Chavis, an official in the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, was reduced from of 25 to 29 years to one of 17 to 21 years. Given such punishment for a first offense by someone with no violent crimes on his record, it can be argued that Gov. Hunt only chipped away at the excess rather than removed it.
The governor, who found himself at the center of a storm he didn't create, has expressed the hope that his decision would put things to rest. That is unlikely to happen, at least so far as public discussion is concerned. Few of the doubts that persisted long before Gov. Hunt involved himself appear to have been resolved. Questions of witness reliability - racantations have been made by prosecution witnesses, and now there is a recantation of a recantation - and such irregularities as a witness's receiving gifts from the prosecutor were not explained away by the governor's assertion that "there was a fair trial." Gov. Hunt has alluded to "outside" criticism of his state's system of justice, but it has been the inside criticism that has often been the sharpest and telling. For although the case has not become something of an international issue, questions about its fairness were originally raised by the reporting and commentary of several North Carolina newspapers.
North Carolina would have been better served if Gov. Hunt had dealth forthrightly with the claims that the trial and prosecution were unfair. But he didn't. Because he chose to avoid a substantive discussion, his decision to reduce the sentences - rather than pardon the group or commute the sentences to time already served - is likely to introduce a new question: Why wasn't the issue of possible unfairness dealth with fully in the governor's exchange with the public? If it had been, little of the outcry following the speech - not merely from black leaders within North Carolina but also from several members of Congress, as well as the leadership of the United Church of Christ - would have much validity. As it is, valid claims persist that this group was railroaded.
It may well turn out that by avoiding the opportunity to address those claims, the governor has fanned the fire, not doused it. At the least, a commutation of the sentences to time already served would have allowed the doubts to be discussed in a much less bitter atmosphere.