(NNPA)—Of the seven years I was editor of Emerge: Black America’s Newsmagazine in the 1990s, I am proudest of our national campaign to win the release of Kemba Smith, a 24-year-old former Hampton University student who was sentenced to a mandatory 24 years in prison for her minor role in a drug ring.
Our first story, written by Reginald Stuart in May 1996, featured a high school graduation photo of Kemba, decked in cap and gown, with the words: “Kemba’s Nighmare: A Model Student Becomes Prisoner #26370-083.” We published two additional stories on Kemba, both written by Stuart.
The original Emerge story caught the attention of Elaine Jones, then director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She began representing Kemba in court and eventually filed a petition for clemency. In late 2000, President Bill Clinton granted LDF’s request and Kemba was released after serving 7 years in federal prison.
I’ve said all along that Kemba wasn’t the only victim of our criminal injustice system. Add the Wilmington Ten to that list.
Most Black newspapers are carrying a NNPA News Service story this week by Cash Michaels of the Wilmington Journal describing a national campaign to win pardons for the Wilmington Ten—nine African-Americans and a White female—unfairly convicted in connection with urban unrest. The NNPA is helping spearhead this movement.
In a nutshell, racial strife accompanied the desegregation of New Hanover County, N.C. schools. The all-Black high school was closed under the desegregation plan and its students were transferred to the previously all-White high school, where they received a hostile reception.
In February 1971, the United Church of Christ assigned Benjamin Chavis Jr., a native of Oxford, N.C., to help students organize a school boycott.
Amid the racial turmoil, someone firebombed Mike’s Grocery, a White-owned business located a block away from Gregory Congregational Church, where Chavis had set up headquarters. When fire fighters and police officers arrived on the scene, they were attacked by snipers stationed on the roof of the church. At the time, Chavis and other activists had barricaded themselves inside the building. A riot erupted the next day that resulted in two deaths and six injuries.
Chavis and nine others were charged and convicted of arson and conspiracy in connection with the firebombing incident. Most of the defendants received a sentence of 29 years, with Ann Shepard, the White woman from Auburn, N.Y., receiving the lightest sentence of 15 years and 24-year-old Chavis getting the longest sentence, 34 years.
All nine maintained that they were innocent. In 1980, a federal appeals court overturned their convictions, noting that the trial judge restricted defense attorneys from cross-examining witnesses who had received special treatment in exchange for their testimony against the Wilmington Ten.
Defense attorneys, in their petition to reverse the convictions, noted that the prosecutor failed to disclose “inducement for testimony and special favorable treatment offered to each of three important witnesses including leniency, accommodations at a beach hotel and beach cottage paid for by the prosecution, an expense-paid trip for the girlfriend of the chief witness, and the gift of a minibike made after the trial.”
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled that the prosecution violated due process rights by failing to turn over evidence that was favorable to the defense, including information that would have impeached the testimony of its chief witness, Allen Hall. It was Hall who had leveled the most serious charges against Chavis, depicting him as the chief architect of the violence and claiming that he taught others to assemble firebombs and use firearms.
However, despite more than a half-dozen requests from defense attorneys, the prosecutor refused to turn over a second statement made by Allen that directly contradicted at least 15 of his earlier charges.
The prosecutor also failed to turn over a mental evaluation of Hall.
“Significant to this case are the statements in the report that ‘psychological tests reveal an IQ of 82 placing him in the range of borderline defective,’” the appeals court judges wrote. They said Hall’s limited intelligence raised questions about Hall’s “ability to recall in minute detail events that occurred at least one and one-half years prior to the time he was testifying.”
The appeals judges said, “There is also possible knowing use of perjured testimony in connection with this report. Hall testified that he had not undergone a mental examination, and the trial court refused to allow defense counsel to ask Hall in the presence of the jury whether he had been examined by a psychiatrist. Hall did answer the question out of the presence of the jury in the negative and the prosecutor did not disclose the report although he possessed proof positive that the answer was untrue.”
This was the criminal justice system at its worse. The least North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue should do is issue a long overdue pardon and heartfelt apology to the Wilmington Ten.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the NNPA and editorial director of Heart & Soul magazine. He is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.)