WASHINGTON – In 1973 the state of North Carolina put then 24-year-old Benjamin Chavis and the rest of the so-called Wilmington 10 in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
After four decades, and the deaths of four of the group members, the group’s innocence was restored with an official pardon.
“It took 40 years, but it’s OK,” Chavis says. “Better late than never.”
On December 31, 2012, outgoing North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue signed the pardon of innocence, which acknowledges all involved were convicted of a crime, when in fact they were innocent. That type of pardon also allows the group to seek compensation from the state for prison time each of them served.
“Our lawyers are negotiating with the authorities in North Carolina,” says Chavis, who granted WTOP an extensive interview before the opening of his new restaurant in Bethesda.
Chavis, Connie Tindall, Marvin Patrick, Wayne Moore, Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs, James McKoy, Willie Earl Vereen, William Wright, Jr. and Ann Shepard were convicted of arson and conspiracy to commit arson in the firebombing of a Wilmington grocery store in 1971.
They were given a combined 282 years in prison sentences. Chavis’ 34-year term was the longest.
Tindall, Jacobs, Wright and Shepard have since died.
Chavis says, at the time, the group was part of a larger mission to desegregate schools.
“We were trying to get the rights of white students and black students to go to school together and have a quality education,” Chavis says.
In 1980, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the convictions. Among the reasons filed by the judges to toss out the convictions: the prosecution withheld witness documents from the defense, allowed witnesses to testify that it knew were lying and denied the defense a fair trial by an impartial jury.
Chavis, 64, says the court ruling was a justification of what they already knew.
“We said we’re innocent, we’re going to always maintain our innocence,” he says.
Chavis, who now sports a gray-haired goatee and thin-framed glasses with circular lenses, later became Chief Executive Officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as a theology scholar and minister.
He says the same success would evade many of his peers.
“Once you’re unjustly incarcerated it’s hard to get a job. So, these young men were unable to be employed, had their dreams and hopes decimated,” Chavis explains.
Chavis says he hopes the current spotlight that’s on the group will shine a light on injustices that may still take place within the justice system, and prevent another Wilmington 10 from spawning.
He recalls his time in prison as “some rough days,” but credits his religious faith as what allowed him to persevere.
“No matter what you experience, whether just or unjust, you should never let anyone break your spirit,” he says.