SUMTER, S.C. (CN) - A 14-year-old boy executed in Jim Crow-era South Carolina may get a new trial if his family can persuade a judge today that his 1944 conviction relied on shaky evidence and racial bias.
George Stinney Jr., the youngest person executed in the United States in more than 100 years, was convicted in 1944 of the first-degree murder of two white girls, 11 and 8, in the town of Alcolu, S.C.
Alcolu, in Clarendon County, was a small, working-class mill town where whites and blacks were separated by railroad tracks.
After Stinney's arrest, his father was fired and the family was evicted in a matter of hours. Stinney's parents and siblings were forced to flee town, leaving George with no support during his 81-day confinement and trial.
The only evidence the state introduced against Stinney was that the victims had spoken with Stinney and his sister shortly before they were killed, and an autopsy report. The prosecution presented no murder weapon.
Two white police officers testified that Stinney had confessed to the murders. The police, however, did not have written records of Stinney's purported confession, and at trial, Stinney denied confessing to the crime.
Due to racial segregation, no African-Americans were present in the courtroom or on the jury. Stinney had court-appointed counsel, who did not call any witnesses. The trial lasted 2½ hours and the jury took 10 minutes to return with a guilty verdict.
Stinney was executed on June 16, 1944.
At 5 foot 2 inches tall and weighing just over 90 pounds, Stinney was too small to be secured to the frame holding the electrodes, and prison guards had him use a Bible as a booster seat in the electric chair, according to contemporary newspaper accounts.
In the recent years, Stinney's conviction and execution have attracted the attention of activists who questioned whether Stinney received a fair trial.
In 2004, the case caught the interest of local historian George Frierson, who started fighting for Stinney's judicial exoneration, supported by South Carolina lawyers and Stinney's surviving siblings.
In October 2013, attorneys with Manning, S.C.-based Coffey, Chandler, Kent & McKenzie asked Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen to reopen the case and let them present new evidence, including sworn statements from Stinney's relatives accounting for his whereabouts the day of the murders and from a pathologist disputing the autopsy findings.
The state opposed the request, claiming that nearly all the evidence the prosecution had used in 1944, including Stinney's alleged confession, had disappeared, along with the transcript of the trial.
"This case presents issues of great importance to all South Carolinians, and to the integrity of the state criminal justice process," Miller Shealy Jr., a Charleston-based attorney for Stinney's family, wrote in a memorandum
he submitted to the court Friday. "Though this case occurred long ago, it casts a long shadow into the present. It is a shadow that lies like a pall over the defendant's family and the state. Justice demands that these serious questions be resolved, and it is most fitting that redress be granted by the same General Sessions Court that did not work justice nearly seventy years ago. At fourteen years of age, George Stinney, Jr. may be the youngest person ever subject to the death penalty in the United States in the 20th century. His conviction was based on numerous errors and omissions, and a review of the case and other information reveals he was innocent. Moreover, the public interest demands that this great wrong be righted. To serve the public interest, this Court should neither allow this case to be summarily dismissed, nor allow the case to be swept under the rug of history."
Shealy said that Stinney's family members have the right to seek judicial exoneration because basic civil rights claims can survive death.
Attorneys for Stinney's family agreed that 1944 accounts describing the murder weapon, bloody clothing and other possible evidence were inconsistent, but said that some information could be recovered from files in the South Carolina State Archives. They rejected the state's contention that the defense relied solely on contradictory newspaper reports and on the state's lack of evidence to build its case.
What's more, Stinney's siblings, Charles and Amie, who could not testify in 1944, can now provide George Stinney with an alibi, which may change the outcome at a new trial, according to a Jan. 17 memorandum
Stinney's family says another key witness, a 15-year-old boy who found the bodies and pulled them from a ditch, was sent home before officers arrived, and never testified.
"The procedurally flawed conviction of George Stinney, Jr. for a murder he did not commit and the execution of a fourteen-year-old boy have left an ugly knot in the thread of our state's timeline," Stinney's attorneys said in the memorandum. "Seventy years later and with aging witnesses finally courageous enough to come forward in order to be heard by the court of law that denied them that opportunity years ago - and backed by forensic evidence supporting the young boy's innocence - the Court is afforded not only the opportunity to repair the shattered name of a child that our state executed, but to untie and make right this inexcusable miscarriage of justice before it becomes permanently a glaring blemish in South Carolina's history."
Judge Mullen is expected to rule after the hearing concludes (today) Wednesday, though she may take time to consider her decision.
"No one here can justify a 14-year-old child being charged, tried, convicted and executed in some 80 days," Mullen said Tuesday during the hearing.
She noted her task is to decide whether Stinney got a fair trial, not whether he was innocent.
"What can I do? What can I rectify?" Mullen said at the beginning of the hearing. "And even if we did retry Mr. Stinney, what would be the result? Again, none of us have the power to bring that 14-year-old child back."
The segregation-era system often found defendants guilty with evidence that would be considered insufficient today. If Mullen finds in favor of Stinney, it could open the door for other appeals.
Third Circuit Solicitor Ernest "Chip" Finney III, who is arguing the case for the state, said he will lay out the facts and let Mullen decide if there should be a new trial.
Finney, the son of South Carolina's first black chief justice, said he was shocked the justice system took such little regard for a boy's life, but that was the way justice operated at that time.
Matthew Burgess with Coffey Chandler told Courthouse News that the firm also filed a pardon application with Gov. Nikki Haley, in case the motion for a new trial fails.
The hearing for a new trial, which ended after 7 p.m. on Tuesday, was to resume this morning.