In a ruling that can only be described as cold and literal, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals ruled today that the estates of four of the ten defendants wrongfully convicted for burning down a grocery store in Wilmington in 1971 amidst school desegregation violence there were not entitled to compensation under the state’s wrongful conviction law.
The “Wilmington 10” — nine African-American men and one white woman — spent years in jail before Gov. Jim Hunt commuted their sentences in 1977.
A 60 Minutes investigation exposed their trial as a farce. The prosecutor made up facts, coerced witnesses, and hid crucial evidence from the defense team that the law required him to turn over.
And a federal appeals court threw out the convictions in 1980 after even more evidence of prosecutorial misconduct surfaced and three key witnesses recanted their testimony, admitting they had committed perjury at the original trial.
Years later, the NC NAACP released newly-discovered additional evidence of unfairness during the original trial, including notes showing the prosecutor lied to a judge to get a mistrial so he could try the case again with another jury and notes evidencing racial profiling during jury selection, with notations from the prosecutor including “KKK? Good” next to one potential juror’s name and “Uncle Tom” beside another.
In late December 2012, then-Gov. Beverly Perdue issued pardons of innocence for all ten, including posthumous pardons for four who had since died — Jerry Jacobs, Anne Shepard, Connie Tindall, and Joe Wright.
The six living members of the Wilmington 10 along with the estates of the four others then filed petitions with the Industrial Commission for compensation due under state law to persons erroneously convicted of felonies.
The state awarded the six living members full compensation, but refused to give the estates of the other four anything, saying that the statute clearly and unambiguously applied only to persons who had been convicted of a crime, imprisoned, and granted a pardon of innocence before petitioning the State for compensation.
Today, the Court of Appeals agreed and ruled further that the right to compensation accrues at the time the “person” receives a pardon. Since the four defendants whose estates had sued were not alive at the time of their pardons, they acquired no right to compensation under the law.
“We acknowledge plaintiffs’ assertion that ‘when an innocent person has had his or her liberty and a portion of his or her life wrongfully taken, . . . that harm lives on after death – especially in the lives of affected loved ones,’” Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Inman wrote for the court. “However, we are required by law to apply [the law] as it is written. These policy considerations are more appropriately raised with the legislative branch”
The full decision is here.