SUMTER, S.C. — A 14-year-old black boy executed nearly 70 years ago in South Carolina is finally getting another day in court, but the judge and a prosecutor aren’t sure whether it is fair to judge what happened in a segregationist-era courtroom by modern standards.
George Stinney was found guilty in 1944 of killing two white girls, ages 7 and 11. The trial lasted less than a day in the tiny Southern mill town of Alcolu, separated, as most were in those days, by race. His lawyers argued his conviction was tainted by racism and scant evidence.
Nearly all the evidence, including Stinney’s confession that was central to the case, 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.
The novel decision of whether to give someone executed a new trial is 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.”
Experts say the request is a longshot because South Carolina law has a high bar to grant new trials. Also, the legal system in the state before segregation often found defendants guilty with evidence that would be considered scant today. If Mullen 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 body and an electrode was too big for his leg.
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 Jim Crow era South, meant deputies in Clarendon County 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 where he grew up, and he has spent a decade fighting to get him exonerated. He swallowed hard as he said he hardly slept Monday night.
“Somebody that didn’t kill someone is finally getting his day in court,” Frierson said.
In 1944, Stinney was likely the only black in the courtroom. On Tuesday, the courtroom was packed with African-American supporters and the prosecutor arguing against him is Ernest “Chip” Finney III, 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 one of the girls killed, 11-year-old Betty Binnicker, have recently spoke 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.
It isn’t clear if the judge will rule Tuesday, or take time to come to her decision. Stinney’s supporters said if the motion for a new trial fails, they will ask the state to pardon him.