By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue pardoned on Monday a mostly African-American group known as the "Wilmington 10" after they were falsely convicted of firebombing a white-owned grocery store in 1971 during a time of bitter racial unrest.
Human and civil rights groups had long decried the convictions and prison sentences ranging from 15 to 34 years for the nine black men and one white woman, arguing they were victims of racial prejudice and prosecutorial misconduct.
Perdue, a Democrat who leaves office this week, said many months of review had convinced her the group deserved full pardons of innocence four decades after their controversial trial ended with guilty verdicts.
"These convictions were tainted by naked racism and represent an ugly stain on North Carolina's criminal justice system that cannot be allowed to stand any longer," Perdue said. "Justice demands that this stain finally be removed."
Wilmington, an historic port city on North Carolina's coast, was gripped by racial tension in the years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination and the desegregation of schools.
Violence erupted on February 6, 1971, when demonstrators set off firebombs in the city's downtown. Firefighters who responded to the blaze set at a grocery store were met with sniper fire.
Authorities blamed the Wilmington 10 for the grocery fire and for conspiring to attack the emergency workers. They were tried and convicted the following year.
Three witnesses later recanted their testimony, and then-Governor Jim Hunt reduced the group's sentences in 1978. A federal appeals court overturned their convictions in 1980, citing numerous instances of prosecutorial misconduct.
Still, the Wilmington 10 and their supporters remained determined to get the state to declare them innocent of the crime.
Momentum for the pardons grew this year as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called on Perdue to act. Supporters noted that four of the Wilmington 10 had died.
Last month, Perdue received the handwritten notes of the prosecutor who picked the group's jury, and the records showed racism had played a dominant role in the process, she said on Monday.
"The notes reveal that certain white jurors believed to be Ku Klux Klan members were described by the prosecutor as 'good' and that at least one African-American juror was noted to be an 'Uncle Tom type,'" Perdue said. "This conduct is disgraceful."
Benjamin Chavis, a civil rights activist who received the stiffest sentence as the suspected leader of the group, said Perdue had removed a "dreadful cloud of injustice" by granting the pardons.
"For the last 40 years, the case of the Wilmington 10 has come to epitomize the struggle for racial justice in the United States," said Chavis, who later served as the executive director of the NAACP and now lives in Florida.
"No better way to end 2012 than to end on a positive note of redemption, reconciliation and the reaffirmation that all of God's people should be treated fairly and evenly," he said.
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Tim Dobbyn)