The wheels of justice sometimes turn slowly, and in the case of George Stinney Jr., they turned very slowly indeed.
Stinney was only 14 years old when a South Carolina court found him guilty of murdering two young girls.
It was 1944. Stinney was black; the two children he allegedly killed in the Pee Dee mill town of Alcolu were white.
In the atmosphere of the Jim Crow era, barely two months passed between Stinney’s conviction in a Clarendon County courtroom and his execution in the electric chair.
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He was the youngest person legally put to death in the United States in the previous hundred years.
On Wednesday, an appeal of Stinney’s conviction brought by his two surviving siblings bore fruit when a judge vacated Stinney’s conviction in its entirety, bringing an end to a legal drama that spanned seven decades.
The speed in which the state meted out justice against the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century was shocking and extremely unfair, Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen wrote in her ruling Wednesday.
“I can think of no greater injustice,” Mullen wrote.
On March 24, 1944, the bodies of 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and 8-year-old Mary Emma Thames were discovered in a ditch in Alcolu partially covered with brush, one day after the girls disappeared while out riding bicycles. Both had suffered fatal blows to the head.
Stinney, a black teen who lived nearby, was arrested for the killings of the two white girls that same day, apparently based on the fact that Stinney was the last person to have seen the girls alive.
Stinney’s father lost his job at the local lumber mill, and his family had to flee their home for fear of retaliation after the teen’s arrest.
“There’s not going to be a new trial after this,” said Matt Burgess, one of the attorneys who handled the Stinney family’s appeal. “The judgment has been vacated entirely, because the judge found it was a fundamental violation of due process.”
Mullen heard arguments in the appeal Jan. 21 at the Sumter County Courthouse, when it was decided Clarendon County didn’t have a facility large enough to hold the crowd expected to turn out for the hearing, which eventually spilled over into an adjoining courtroom.
The appeal focused on the brevity of the original trial – only two hours elapsed between the beginning of the trial and the imposition of the death penalty, and Stinney’s white, court-appointed attorney apparently offered no defense – and the fact that no evidence or even a transcript of the case could be found. The only apparent evidence against Stinney was a confession obtained by a white police officer without any parent or guardian present.
Third Circuit Solicitor Ernest “Chip” Finney III, even now one of only three black solicitors in the state, handled the state’s case in the initial hearing on Jan. 21 of this year, arguing too much time had passed to second-guess the state’s judgment from 70 years ago and the little evidence available was not sufficient to set aside Stinney’s conviction.
“Solicitor Finney handled the case with incredible poise. He did the job he had to do,” said Miller Shealy, a professor at the Charleston School of Law who contributed to the defense’s case. “Nobody who left that courtroom could have thought this result was a foregone conclusion.”
It may not have seemed that way to Mullen either, who took nearly a year to consider the case before issuing a ruling this week. The last briefs in the case were filed before Mullen at the end of February.
Stinney’s family was reportedly overjoyed at the judge’s decision.
“I spoke to Amie (Ruffner, Stinney’s sister and one of the plaintiffs in the case) just 10 minutes ago, and she is very happy to have her brother’s name cleared,” said Burgess, the attorney. “They’ve had to live with this for seven decades, and I could just hear it in her voice how happy she was, and I’m even happier for her.”
Mullen issued her ruling in the form of a writ of coram nobis, a sweeping ruling to correct fundamental errors of due process where no other legal remedy exists. The broad nature of the ruling precludes the possibility of a retrial of George Stinney, even if that were possible at such a late date, when everyone involved in the original case is long gone.
“The remedy for a successful petition under the writ of coram nobis is not a retrial of the factual issues relating to the defendant’s guilt or innocence,” Mullen wrote in her opinion. “The judgment should be vacated based upon a showing of fundamental error.”
The ruling reviews each aspect of the case against Stinney and finds all of them wanting. The interrogation that produced Stinney’s confession was likely inadmissable due to his age and may have been involuntary; Stinney’s attorney failed to put in a competent defense and filed no appeals to his death sentence, violating his right to counsel; the all-white jury pool was unrepresentative; and the execution of a minor has since been found to be unconstitutional.
Shealy, the Charleston law professor who pushed the coram nobis argument at the hearing, agreed with Mullen’s statement the the unique circumstances around Stinney’s case are not applicable to all decades-old criminal cases.
“I spent 20 years as a prosecutor, and I responded to many requests for coram nobis and post-conviction relief, and the circumstances in this case are very special,” he said.
Even in 2014, old racial divisions are evident in the reactions to recent grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers accused of killing blacks. A decision in Stinney’s case at this time is fortuitous, Shealy said, even 70 years later.
“With all the other things going on in the country right now, this shows people that the justice system can work,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.