NC Appeals Court denies compensation in Wilmington Ten case

wilmington-10-allBY CASH MICHAELS



The outrage continues to grow after the NC Court of Appeals this week, in an unanimous opinion by a three-judge panel, ruled that the family members of Connie Tindall, Ann Sheppard, William “Joe” Wright and Jerry Jacobs – four deceased members of the Wilmington Ten, will not be awarded compensation for their false imprisonment and years of suffering.

Their families say one of the reasons why all four prematurely died is because of the stress they had to endure both in prison, and after they were released years later.

“This unjust ruling by the NC Court of Appeals slaps equal justice in the face of history and this is another recurring low moment in North Carolina’s long pretense to treat Black people fairly and justly,” said an angry Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, leader of the Wilmington Ten.

The judicial panel consisted of NC Appellate Judge Donna Stroud – a Republican; Judge J.  Douglas McCullough – also a Republican; and Judge Lucy Inman – a Democrat who also wrote the lead opinion.

The NC State Attorney General’s Office argued for the state.

Why did the appellate court panel reject compensation to the four families? According to the ruling, “Although the State and this Court solemnly acknowledge the profound harm caused by the wrongful imprisonment of any person, we affirm the Full [Industrial] Commission’s order dismissing plaintiffs claims because the [NC] statute does not allow compensation based upon posthumous pardons of innocence.”

Attorneys Irving Joyner and James Ferguson – two of the original defense attorneys for the Wilmington Ten in 1972 – represented all of the six living members – Wayne Moore, James “Bun” McKoy, Marvin “Chili” Patrick,  Reginald Epps, Willie Earl Vereen and Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, and the families of deceased members.

All ten activists were framed for burning down a white-owned grocery store during the height of racial tension in Wilmington in February 1971 over school desegregation. In 1972, they were falsely tried, convicted and collectively sentenced to 282 years in prison, only to have their sentences overturned by the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in December 1980.

The state of North Carolina, however, refused to either retry the Wilmington Ten, or issue pardons of innocence for over 32 years thereafter, despite a federal court finding of gross prosecutorial misconduct in their false convictions.

After a yearlong campaign by The Wilmington Journal, The Carolinian in Raleigh, the National Newspaper Publishers Association and the NCNAACP which generated international press and over 135,000 signatures, Gov. Beverly Perdue issued pardons of innocence for the Ten on her last day in office on Dec. 31st, 2012. Attorneys Joyner and Ferguson subsequently won compensation from the NC Industrial Commission for the six living members, but were rejected for Wright, Sheppard, Jacobs and Tindall.

The lawyers appealed to the state Appellate Court, only to be turned down this week.

In effect, the state appellate court ruled that Wright, Sheppard, Jacobs and Tindall would have had to been granted pardons of innocence before they died, according to a strict reading of the governing state statue, in order for either they or their families to qualify for compensation.

The law covers “persons,” not “estates,” the judicial opinion noted, maintaining that the legal language of the state statute is very clear. “These policy considerations are more appropriately raised with the legislative branch.”

Reaction to the ruling was swift.

“We are disappointed with the adverse ruling from the North Carolina Court of Appeals regarding the estates of the four deceased members of the Wilmington Ten, but this Court’s opinion is not the final word,” said attorney Joyner in a statement.

“This case was one of first impression before the appellate court and sets a bad precedent. In a state with as many wrongful imprisonments and convictions as has occurred in North Carolina, we recognize the need to continue this legal battle on behalf of the affected Wilmington Ten members, but also for other wrongfully convicted individuals whose cases might find themselves in situations similar to our clients. There is no doubt, in the minds of anyone, that the Wilmington Ten were victimized by the State of North Carolina and now the State Attorney General is fighting this protracted battle to deny just compensation for the harm which has been inflicted on these four families.”

“The Wilmington Ten attorneys will consult with the four families and make a decision soon regarding our next steps in Court,” Joyner concluded.

Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, leader of the Wilmington Ten and currently the president/CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, issued a statement from Miami, Fla.

“The current NC Attorney General should learn the bitter lesson that former Governor Jim Hunt (who refused to pardon the Wilmington Ten in 1978) had to learn reluctantly:  Truth and justice can not be forever repressed and suppressed,” Rev. Chavis said. “God does not like ugly and this latest racist court ruling is despicably ugly before God Almighty!”

“The injustice of the Wilmington Ten continues unabated …”

For the families of the deceased members who were denied what they feel was just compensation for their decades of grief, fear, pain and suffering, there was also anger, and sorrow.

“There is no amount of money that can be paid for what my brother went through,” declared Ophelia Tindall, sister to the late Connie Tindall, who died three years ago this week. “This is very wrong, and wrong is wrong, but God sees it all. I truly miss my brother.”

Judy Mack, whose mother, Ann Sheppard, was the only female tried as a member of the Wilmington Ten, was also distraught.

“We are feeling like we have been kicked in the gut,” Ms. Mack posted on Facebook after the ruling was published Tuesday. “We are back at square one ! I felt today as I did as a young girl in the Burgaw Courthouse when the guilty verdict was read. And yes I cried today as I did then. “

“I do thank God and all those involved that were instrumental in helping them receive pardons of innocence. It’s not just a pound of flesh that was taken, it was our HEARTS that were ripped out !!! Ms. Mack continued. “They frame our love ones, imprison them, deny them their rights. Their lives were threatened and changed forever. They lost friends, family and the right to live free !! Yet, we don’t deserve compensation ??? !!!”

Like Rev. Chavis, Wayne Moore was one of the six living members of the Wilmington Ten who did receive compensation after his pardon of innocence. Still, he was very upset.

“I think this ruling is an insult to the memories of Joe Wright, Connie Tindall, Jerry Jacobs, Ann Sheppard and to the dignity of their families ,” Moore said in a statement. Most of us were only teenagers when we were wrongly tried and convicted for crimes we never committed. No amount of money can compensate for what we and our families have endured.”

“Today an old wound has been reopened. The families of Joe Wright, Connie Tindall, Jerry Jacobs [and Ann Sheppard] are my family. They often visited me in prison, and supported me throughout the long and arduous journey for justice. It is why I feel the exact same feeling today as I felt some forty-three years ago when the jury came back with a verdict of guilty. Though my heart has once again been broken, my spirit is alive and well. I am not satisfied, and I will not be satisfied, until, [like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said] “Justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

“We will not rest until we find some semblance of justice for our deceased brothers,” Moore concluded.

Thanks to the involvement of the NCNAACP, the pardons of innocence campaign was successful in 2012. But this week’s decision by the NC Appeals Court also disturbed NCNAACP Pres. Rev. William Barber .

“All of the members of the Wilmington Ten – both those alive and the remaining estates, deserve compensation,” Barber said. “They were wronged,  they were hurt, and they were violated. This hurt was felt by the individuals and their families.”

“The lawyers will continue the battle,” Rev. Barber continued. “We can’t give them back the years lost.  Full justice can never be realized to address an injustice that should have never occurred, but we will continue to push until the full measure of justice and compensation that can be provided, and is provided.”

Prof. Timothy Tyson, Senior Research Scholar at Duke University in Durham, helped the 2012 pardons of innocence effort immensely when he discovered prosecutor’s trial notes from June 1972, outlining how the state attempted to stack the jury will Ku Klux Klan members, and keep black people off.

Prof. Tyson was also displeased this week with the state appellate court decision.

“Given that the Wilmington Ten have been conclusively found to have committed no crime, but instead to have been the victims of the most blatant, intentional and even criminal racial injustice by the state’s courts, it seems unfair that there is no compensation for the families of the deceased, who suffered immensely at the hands of these courts,” Prof. Tyson says. “Just because the state dragged its feet for forty years is no excuse for perpetuating this wrong.”

Attorneys for the families are expected to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

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