Charlotte lawyer James E. Ferguson accused North Carolina law enforcement officials Friday of "emptying out the jails, the mental institutions, and the training schools" to produce fabricated evidence to punish black leader Ben Chavis for his controversial beliefs.
In an impassioned revival-like courtroom summation, Ferguson told stern-faced jurors in the five-week-old trial of Chavis and nine others on burning and conspiracy charges that the trial's outcome would determine "whether, if you happen to be on the unpopular side of an issue, you can be prosecuted because of your beliefs."
Sometimes shouting, sometimes whispering, the bony faced 30-year-old lawyer spoke for nearly three hours. He was interrupted only by a mid-morning recess and his own infrequent pauses to catch his breath a gulp a sip of water.
Chavis, a 24-year-old self-styled minister and civil rights advocate, and eight other young black men are accused of burning a store and conspiring to shoot "emergency personnel" during a week of racial tension in Wilmington last year. A white woman, Mrs. Ann Shepard, is on trial for allegedl being an accessory to the fire.