JEFFREY COLLINS, Associated Press
SUMTER, South Carolina (AP) — A 14-year-old black boy executed nearly 70 years ago is finally getting another day in court, and his lawyers plan to argue Tuesday for a new trial, saying his conviction was tainted by the segregationist-era justice system and scant evidence.
George Stinney was found guilty of killing two white girls, 11-year-old Betty Binnicker and 7-year-old Mary Emma Thames, just over a month after their bodies were found beaten in the head and left in a water-filled ditch. The trial lasted less than a day in the tiny Southern mill town of Alcolu, separated, as most were in those days, by race.
Experts say the request it is a longshot because South Carolina law has a high bar to grant new trials. If the judge finds in favor of Stinney, it could open the door for hundreds of other appeals.
But the Stinney case is unique. At 14, he’s the youngest person executed in the United States in the past 100 years. Even in 1944, there was an outcry over putting someone so young in the electric chair. Newspaper accounts said the straps in the chair didn’t fit around his 95-pound (43-kilogram) body and an electrode was too big for his leg.
Nearly all the evidence, including a confession that was central to the case against Stinney, has disappeared, along with the transcript of the trial. Lawyers working on behalf of Stinney’s family have gathered new evidence, including sworn statements from his relatives accounting for his whereabouts the day the girls were killed and from a pathologist disputing the autopsy findings.
But that evidence depends mostly on the unreliability of the human memory. Stinney’s younger sister, who was 7 at the time, testified Tuesday about how she hid in a chicken coop when several white men in uniforms arrived at their home in strange-looking cars. She vividly remembered seeing her brother’s burned body in a casket after his electrocution and the unmarked grave he was buried in. But on cross examination, Amie Ruffner struggled to remember details of a 2009 sworn statement she gave.
The novel decision of whether to give someone executed a new trial will be in the hands of Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen. She said her task isn’t deciding whether Stinney is guilty or innocent, but whether he got a fair trial at the time.
“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.”
Mullen acknowledged how the case was unusual.
“No one here can justify a 14-year-old child being charged, tried, convicted and executed in some 80 days,” she said.
Stinney’s supporters said racism, common in the South at that time, meant deputies did little investigation after they decided Stinney was the prime suspect. They said he was pulled from his parents and interrogated without a lawyer.
School board member George Frierson heard stories about Stinney growing up in the same mill town he did, and he has spent a decade fighting to get him exonerated.
In 1944, Stinney was likely the only black in the courtroom. On Tuesday, the courtroom was packed with African-American supporters. Ernest “Chip” Finney III, the prosecutor arguing against him, is the son of South Carolina’s first black chief justice. Finney argued there shouldn’t be a new trial because the evidence was lost with the passage of time, not destroyed. He said he is shocked and dismayed that the justice system took such little regard for a boy’s life, but that was the way justice operated at that time.
“Back in 1944, we should have known better, but we didn’t,” Finney said.
South Carolina executed 59 people in the 1940s. Fifty of them were black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The state’s black population was 43 percent back then.
Finney has said he will conduct an investigation if a new trial is granted, but what that might find is not known.
Newspaper stories about Stinney’s trial offer little clue whether any evidence was introduced beyond the teen’s confession and an autopsy report. Some people around Alcolu said bloody clothes were taken from Stinney’s home, but never introduced at trial because of his confession. No record of those clothes exists.
Relatives of the girls have recently spoken out as well, saying Stinney was known around town as a bully who threatened to fight or kill people who came too close to the grass where he grazed the family cow.
Terri Evans, a cousin of Thames born years after she died, said it’s a shame this hearing couldn’t be held earlier. Her uncle was at the 1944 trial and watched Stinney’s execution. He told her he was convinced of the teen’s guilt and felt terrible for his family, too.
“These people who were kids at the time, all they knew then was fear. There’s no one living that was at the trial,” Evans said. “Everything anyone says now is hearsay.”
The hearing will continue Wednesday. It isn’t clear when the judge will rule.
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