Support for New Trial of Executed Black Child

     SUMTER, S.C. (CN) – The youngest American executed in the 20th century, a 14-year-old black child, was denied a fair trial in Jim Crow-era South Carolina, petitioners for a new trial told a judge.
     George Stinney Jr. was arrested in March 1944 on suspicion of murdering two white girls, 11 and 7, in Alcolu, S.C.
     Stinney, who lived with his parents and four siblings in the segregated lumber mill town in Clarendon County, had seen the two girls earlier that day while grazing the family cow close to his home.
     Amie Lou Ruffner testified years later that she had been with Stinney, her brother, that day, and the girls had approached them to ask where they could find maypop flowers.
     A neighbor, known as Mrs. Daisy, witnessed the brief exchange, Ruffner said. After the girls left with their bikes, the Stinneys returned home, had dinner and did their chores and schoolwork as usual.
     Stinney’s brother Charles, who was 12 at the time, testified that George and Amie Lou did not look suspicious when they came home from the field, and that there was no evidence of a struggle.
     When people realized the two girls were missing, a search party that included Stinney’s father looked for them, and found their bodies in a ditch the next morning. The men found a bicycle on top of the girls, and the bicycle handlebars in a bush away from the ditch, according to police reports.
     Shortly after the bodies were found, the police seized George Stinney and his half-brother, who was later released. Officers searched the Stinney home in vain for evidence, but never interviewed the siblings who allegedly could have provided an alibi.
     The lumber company fired Stinney’s father that evening, and the family was forced to leave town immediately under threats of violence from the angry white community.
     One month later, Stinney was tried for the murder of the 11-year-old girl. An all-white jury found him guilty after deliberating for 10 minutes. The trial and the sentencing lasted a little more than two hours, witnesses said. None of the boy’s relatives attended the trial, and there were no other black people in the courtroom.
     Contemporary accounts indicate that Stinney’s court-appointed attorney never cross-examined witnesses, nor did he call witnesses of his own. He also failed to pursue an appeal or stay of execution, and he never challenged Stinney’s confession, which the boy allegedly gave without his parents or counsel present, Stinney’s family said.
     Stinney’s family claimed that the indictment mentioned an “iron rod” as the murder weapon, and it attributed the information to Stinney’s purported confession. The record however never mentioned a written confession, and medical reports showed the victims had died from blows caused with “a round instrument about the size of the head of a hammer,” Stinney’s survivors said.
     The coroner’s report indicated that the girls had not been raped, but the Alcolu community, police officials and the contemporary media nevertheless claimed Stinney had at least tried to rape the older girl. Even the state’s governor disseminated rumors that Stinney had raped at least one of the victims, based on the responding police officer’s account, court filings show.
     In December 2013, Wilford “Johnny” Hunter, a detainee who was in jail with Stinney before his execution, testified that Stinney had told him he was innocent but was forced to say he had killed the girls.
     After local historian George Frierson investigated the case around 2004, Stinney’s surviving siblings and supporters asked Judge Carmen Mullen with the Clarendon County Third Judicial Circuit to vacate his conviction. They offered new evidence, including affidavits from Stinney’s relatives and pathology reports disputing the autopsy findings, to show that Stinney’s trial and execution had been marred by racial prejudice.
     The state opposed the request, arguing that, without the evidence the prosecution had used in 1944, it was impossible to establish if Stinney was innocent. It also claimed that reversing his conviction could shake people’s faith in the courts.
     The petitioners countered that the only question before the court was whether Stinney had received a fair trial.
     Even by 1944 standards, Stinney was denied due process, and thus is entitled to coram nobis relief, Miller Shealy Jr., a Charleston-based attorney for Stinney’s family, argued in a brief last week.
     Coram nobis, which was designed to correct judicial errors, is considered an extension of the contested trial, and is not subject to rules governing appeals or to a statute of limitations.
     The circumstances of the case, including its racially charged historical background, prevented Stinney’s family from seeking the judicial correction earlier, Shealy argued.
     Calling Stinney’s trial and execution “a grave miscarriage of justice,” the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and a law professor joined his family in petitioning the court to vacate the conviction.
     “Racial bias in Clarendon County in 1944 impermissibly tainted the proceedings against Stinney, and courts have a special duty to make corrections where they can do so when race is shown to have played a significant role in a jury’s verdict,” Margaret Burnham, a Northeastern University law professor, said in an amicus brief. “Moreover, extraordinary relief is warranted in light of Stinney’s youth. The Supreme Court has established that, as applied to juveniles, capital punishment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. And where Stinney’s case was never subjected to appellate review, it is particularly appropriate for this court to grant relief to correct the errors at trial.”
     Burnham backed the petitioners’ argument that Stinney had been denied due process because he lacked effective counsel, was forced to confess, and was not tried by an impartial jury of his peers.
     “There is compelling evidence that George Stinney was innocent of the crimes for which he was executed in 1944,” Burnham wrote. “The prosecutor relied, almost exclusively, on one piece of evidence to obtain a conviction in this capital case: the unrecorded, unsigned ‘confession’ of a 14-year-old child who was deprived of counsel and parental guidance, and whose defense lawyer shockingly failed to call exculpating witnesses or to preserve his right of appeal.”
     Even in 1944, South Carolina courts had a duty to carefully check the record in a capital case for legal errors, according to the Feb. 21 brief.
     Stinney’s appointed lawyer, who was inexperienced in criminal matters, made crucial errors, such as allowing the case to go to trial a month after the murders and Stinney’s arrest, not seeking a change of venue despite the racially charged environment, failing to call and interview witnesses, and failing to challenge Stinney’s confession, the brief states. The attorney also failed to seek a stay of execution, or appeal the conviction, but the court that convicted Stinney overlooked the obvious errors, Burnham argued.
     What’s more, two of the men who had found the victims’ bodies had served on the all-white jury that indicted Stinney and on the coroner’s inquest, respectively. Although in 1940 almost three-quarters of Clarendon County’s residents were black, no black people served on a jury between 1935 and 1961, according to the filing.
     When authorities obtained the alleged confession from Stinney, he was not yet represented by an attorney, his parents were not present, and the police had no warrant for his arrest. No record could be found of a written confession, or of a hearing to establish if it had been voluntary, the brief states.
     “Without posthumous remedies for the wrongfully executed, courts cannot redress the stigma, dishonor, and emotional trauma associated with wrongful conviction,” Burnham wrote. “In capital cases, courts must fulfill the uniquely juridical function of correcting harmful errors; the communities and families touched by the case as well as the larger public have a right to know whether the defendant was wrongfully convicted and executed.”
     The Stinneys said they were banished from their own town and had to live with the regret that they could not do more for their brother, while George Stinney is still remembered as one of the “10 most homicidal children” in American history.
     Many trial courts in the South have recently overturned racially tainted convictions, years after the defendants’ death, meaning the court that convicted Stinney, which is the appropriate forum for the remedy, would not be the first to grant posthumous relief, they argued.
     In South Carolina, which witnessed the lynching of 155 black people between 1882 and 1947, and a disproportionate number of black convictions and executions, race dictated the outcome of criminal-justice proceedings just as much as in other Southern states in the 1940s.
     The NAACP brief was filed Feb. 24. It says the court should vacate Stinney’s conviction to renounce unjust procedures, even if the injustice occurred years ago.
     “During these times, a fourteen year-old African American male, George Stinney, found himself charged with murder,” the brief states. “He was poor. He was alone. He was ‘appointed’ a white attorney running for political office. His attorney presented little to no defense. As such, the word of the white officers was accepted without question. This was the message sent to the jury of twelve white men – not a jury of his peers – selected from the very community that threatened the accused’s family and threatened to lynch the young boy. These twelve white men, told there was a possibility that a young white girl was raped, were asked to decide young Stinney’s fate.”
     In opposing the motion for a new trial, South Carolina has argued that trying to correct a mistake that happened 70 years ago could cause people to question the validity of the law and courts.
     “Quite to the contrary, a ruling and reversal of the conviction, while not affording exoneration to Stinney of the criminal accusation, would underscore that the justice system is engaged in a search for the truth through fair and just trial procedures,” the NAACP responded. “A reversal would result in hope and heightened public confidence in the court’s acknowledgement that the judicial process for Mr. Stinney was egregiously flawed but that the quest for justice never ceases. We, as parents, preach to our children that they must admit their mistakes. The courts should do no less when it comes to the rights of its minority citizens.”
     Judge Mullen is expected to rule in the case soon.
     “At this point, we are just waiting for the Court’s ruling,” Matthew Burgess, one of Stinney’s Manning, S.C.-based attorneys, told Courthouse News. “All of the evidence has been presented, the motion has been heard, and the memoranda have been filed. We’re grateful to those who filed additional briefs in support of our effort, and we’re hopeful that the judgment against George Stinney Jr. will be vacated.”

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