MANNING, S.C. (CN) - A black teenager convicted of murdering two white girls in Jim Crow-era South Carolina was exonerated Tuesday, 70 years after his speedy trial and execution.
George Stinney Jr. was charged with murder for the death of 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and 7-year-old Mary Emma Thames in March 1944. Alcolu, S.C., where Stinney and the victims lived, was a deeply segregated lumber mill town, with blacks and whites living on opposite sides of railroad tracks.
After the girls' bodies were found in a ditch with their skulls crushed, Stinney was accused of killing them with an iron rod or railroad spike. A neighbor testified she had seen Stinney and his sister talk to the girls shortly before they were killed.
Stinney's trial lasted one day, with the 12 white jurors taking 10 minutes to deliberate before finding the teen guilty of Binnicker's murder. Stinney was represented at trial by a tax attorney, who did not appeal his conviction.
The teen was executed in June 1944, less than three months after his arrest. He became the youngest person to be executed in the 1900s.
The boy's parents and four siblings, who left town under threats of lynching after Stinney was charged with the murders, maintained that Stinney was innocent. His siblings testified that Stinney was not alone that day long enough to commit the murders, and was too small to handle the alleged murder weapon.
A witness who was in jail with Stinney prior to his execution testified that Stinney claimed he was innocent and had been coerced into confessing.
With support from a local historian and pro bono counsel, three of Stinney's siblings asked Circuit Judge Carmen Tevis Mullen to reopen the case, claiming their late brother had been denied a fair trial. Stinney, 14 at the time, was taken from his home and interrogated in his parents' absence. Although his siblings claimed they could have offered alibi information, they were never interviewed, nor were any other defense witnesses.
The family claimed they did not seek pardon for a crime their brother did not commit. Instead, they asked the court to overturn Stinney's conviction and clear his name.
After taking almost a year to deliberate following a January hearing, Mullen ruled Tuesday that Stinney had not received a fair trial.
Citing the lack of case files and trial transcripts, Mullen said she could not address the merits of the case. However, given the "fundamental, constitutional violations of due process" in Stinney's prosecution, his conviction must be overturned, according to the Dec. 16 ruling.
A forensic psychiatrist testified for the defense that, based on the surviving documents and witness accounts, it is highly likely that Stinney "was coerced into confessing to the crimes due to the power differential between his position as a 14-year-old black male apprehended and questioned by white, uniformed law enforcement in a small, segregated mill town in South Carolina."
"We know that law enforcement separated the defendant from his parents and otherwise took advantage of his age and stature to garner a result they predetermined to be true and just," Mullen wrote. "This confession simply cannot be said to be known and voluntary, given the facts and circumstances of this case highlighting the defendant's age and suggestibility."
Moreover, Stinney had little to no assistance from his appointed counsel, the court concluded. Stinney's trial attorney made no efforts to investigate, call witnesses, challenge the jury selection or move the trial to another county, according to the ruling.
While courts only recently declared it unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on minors, executing a 14-year-old constituted cruel and unusual punishment even in 1944, the ruling adds.
The court granted the relief in the form of coram nobis, a limited remedy used to correct erroneous judgments and protect due process rights.
Had the family filed the petition years ago, when more witnesses of Stinney's prosecution were still alive, the original proceedings might have been easier to judge. However, the family only recently received pro bono legal services and support, justifying the delay, Mullen found.
And although overturning decades-old convictions is impossible in most cases, the extraordinary circumstances of Stinney's case warrant that reversal.
"I can think of no greater injustice than a violation of one's constitutional rights which has been proven to me in this case by a preponderance of the evidence standard," Mullen concluded.
Matt Burgess, an attorney representing Stinney's siblings, said the family was happy with the outcome and relieved that Stinney was exonerated. "This is something they have been carrying around with them for seven decades," Burgess said in a telephone interview. "Although there's nothing we can do to bring him back, they are happy that his name was cleared."
Burgess said he was not surprised the court took a long time to deliberate given the amount of information involved and the gaps in the trial record.
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