Executed at age 14, George Stinney exonerated 70 years later

South Carolina electrocuted George Stinney after he was convicted of killing two white girls in 1944. The trial lasted three hours, and George's lawyer had never before represented a criminal defendant.

George Stinney Jr. at 14-years-old.

At just 95 pounds and barely five feet tall, he was so small that he had to sit on a phone book.

George Stinney was just 14 years old when the state of South Carolina electrocuted him in 1944 – the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century. Jim Crow was the law for African-Americans. The Ku Klux Klan was a menacing presence. Lynchings still happened all too frequently in this pre-civil rights era.

It may never be known if the black boy killed two white girls in Alcolu, S.C., as police, prosecutors, and jurors – all of them white – quickly determined. Any physical evidence has long since disappeared.

But as the great Southern writer William Faulkner said through one of his characters, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." And that's certainly true for George's relatives, as well as the relatives of 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and 8-year-old Mary Emma Thames, the girls killed that day.

George confessed, but there's strong feeling that he was coerced. And the details of how authorities (and the defense attorney) handled the case leave much doubt that justice was done. For decades, the old legal maxim "Justice delayed is justice denied" seemed to apply.

On Wednesday, Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen vacated the boy's conviction, effectively clearing his name.

Judge Mullen ruled that George's confession (which he later denied making) was likely coerced and thus inadmissible, "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." 

"This Court finds fundamental, Constitutional violations of due process exist in the 1944 prosecution of George Stinney, Jr. and hereby vacates the judgment," Judge Mullen wrote. "Given the particularized circumstances of Stinney’s case, I find by a preponderance of the evidence standard, that a violation of the Defendant’s procedural due process rights tainted his prosecution."

Here are some of those particularized circumstances:

The trial lasted just three hours, and no witnesses were called on George's behalf. His white, court-appointed lawyer – a tax commissioner who had never represented a criminal defendant – did not cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution. The jury of 12 white men took just 10 minutes to reach a guilty verdict. When the boy was sentenced to die by electrocution, no appeal was filed.

Ray Brown, who’s producing a film called "83 Days" based on George’s execution timeline, told TheGrio.com he was overwhelmed by Wednesday’s ruling.

“It’s never too late for justice,” Mr. Brown said. “There’s no statute of limitations on justice. One of the things I can say about South Carolina and I can give them credit for – is that they got it right this time. During a period of time in our nation where we seem to have such a great racial divide, you have a southern state that has decided to admit they made a mistake and correct it.”

The past may not be dead, as Faulkner wrote, but much of South Carolina's past no longer marks the state's present.

In the court proceedings leading up to young George's exoneration, the solicitor for the state who argued that the conviction should stand, was a black man, the son of South Carolina's first African-American state Supreme Court justice since Reconstruction.

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