SUMTER, S.C. (AP) — 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.