The "Wilmington Ten" got their name following the February 1971 firebombing of Mike's Grocery in Wilmington. Following the bombing, a sniper took shots at firemen who were trying putting out the blaze.
Ten young civil rights activists - 21-year-old Connie Tindall, 19-year-old Willie Earl Vereen, 19-year-old Marvin Patrick, 34-year-old Anne Shepard Turner, 18-year-old William "Joe" Wright, 18-year-old Wayne Moore, 17-year-old Reginald Epps, 19-year-old Jerry Jacobs, 18-year-old James McKoy and 24-year-old Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis - were convicted and sentenced to a total of 282 years in prison in 1972.
They all served several years of incarceration before the case against them fell apart thanks to a 1977 CBS' "60 Minutes" exposé. Eventually, in 1980, the U.S. Fourth Circuit of Appeals overturned their convictions.
The federal appeals court determined that their constitutional rights had been violated, and that there was evidence that the "Wilmington Ten" were, in fact, innocent of all charges.
The 10 activists were later freed, but their names had never been officially cleared in North Carolina until Perdue's action Monday. Tindall, Turner, Wright and Jacobs have since passed away.
"In evaluating these petitions for clemency, it is important to separate fact from rumor and innuendo. I have decided to grant these pardons because the more facts I have learned about the Wilmington Ten, the more appalled I have become about the manner in which their convictions were obtained," said Perdue in a statement released with the pardons.
Perdue said the case records show a key witness in the case perjured himself and Assistant New Hanover County District Attorney James "Jay" Stroud Jr. knew it.
The NAACP has uncovered trial notes that show Stroud conspired to postpone the trial when he didn't get a jury with the racial makeup he was looking for. Stroud's notes also show he tried to pick mostly white jurors, or sympathetic blacks.
"This conduct is disgraceful. It is utterly incompatible with basic notions of fairness and with every ideal that North Carolina holds dear," said Perdue. "Justice demands that this stain finally be removed. The process in which this case was tried was fundamentally flawed. Therefore, as Governor, I am issuing these pardons of innocence to right this longstanding wrong."
"Until today, North Carolina has fallen short," said North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber. "It took too long, but thank God it has come."
Irv Joyner was an original lawyer on the case. He picked up the pardons Monday afternoon.
"We're thankful that she was able to see through the smoke screens and come to the realization that North Carolina had to apologize," said Joyner.
Former prosecutor Stroud has not commented on the allegations. Now 69, he lives in Gastonia according to published reports. He lost his license to practice law in 2008.