SUMTER, S.C. After South Carolina electrocuted George J. Stinney Jr. in 1944, his family buried his burned, 14-year-old body in an unmarked grave in the hopes the anonymity would allow him to rest in peace.
But on two mornings this week, nearly 70 years after the electrocution that ultimately made Stinney, a black teenager in the segregated South, the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century, lawyers and spectators crowded into a courtroom with a very different agenda: shedding enough light on the case to try to clear Stinney’s name.
“When I looked at the case and what was there and studied it, it was appalling,” said Miller Shealy Jr., one of the lawyers who agreed to help the Stinney family in its quest for a new trial or a voided verdict. He added that the case played out in the “old South Carolina,” but said, “It’s still appalling.”
Judge Carmen Mullen of Circuit Court did not rule on the requests at the end of the two-day hearing, and she asked for more written briefs in the coming weeks.
But in a state where racial matters still simmer – the presence of the Confederate battle emblem at the State House was the subject of a demonstration this week – the proceeding was a reminder of a difficult past recent enough that two of Stinney’s sisters were in the courtroom.
When a lawyer asked Amie Ruffner, one of the two, what she recalled of her Jim Crow-era childhood in South Carolina, she replied, “Nothing good.”
A huge part of that painful childhood was the execution of her brother, who was put to death less than three months after two white girls, ages 7 and 11, were found dead in Alcolu, the mill town where Stinney lived, in March 1944. Stinney, who, along with his father, joined the group searching for the two girls, was arrested soon after their bodies were found in a ditch, dead from blows with a railroad spike.
Investigators said then that Stinney had admitted to killing the girls after they asked him for suggestions about where to find maypops, a type of flower in the area. (His confession, and other records of the case, were lost.)
Stinney’s hastily scheduled trial lasted just hours, and he was executed that June.
Although Judge Mullen declared early in this week’s proceedings that she would not be contemplating Stinney’s guilt or innocence, the hearing took on the atmosphere of a trial, if one somewhat mellowed by the lessons of history.
“Back in 1944, we should have known better, but we didn’t,” said Ernest Finney III, solicitor for the Third Circuit Court in Sumter, S.C., who was opposing the request on the state’s behalf. “The fact of the matter is, it happened, and it occurred because of a legal system of justice that was in place.”
But Shealy said the state owed Stinney a different result, even if a favorable ruling prompted an onslaught of appeals in other aging cases. “The state really needs to say, ‘This was wrong,’ ” he said.
With another trial a prospect, if only a distant one, Judge Mullen heard legal arguments that touched on issues like judicial standing, and aggressive inquiries about the limits of memory, an especially important issue because many of the records in the case were destroyed.
Witnesses evaluated photographs and a large map, one that was disputed for its accuracy. Lawyers asked pointed questions during cross-examinations. A pathologist voiced concerns about the autopsies of the two victims, and a psychiatrist cast doubt on the validity of a confession Stinney gave investigators.
“Does the confession fit the evidence? No,” said Dr. Amanda Salas, a child and adolescent forensic psychiatrist who had studied the case before she began evaluating it on the Stinney family’s behalf less than a week ago.
Salas said Stinney’s admission was “a coerced, compliant, false confession,” but she cautioned that she had no evidence of misconduct by investigators. Instead, she attributed the confession to his vulnerability as a black teenager facing scrutiny by white officials.
Those echoes of the state’s past came into play as each side brought to the stand witnesses with fierce views about whether Stinney merits a trial that, both parties acknowledged, could not bring a boy back.
“I’d like to see them find him innocent,” said another sister of Stinney’s, Katherine Robinson, a retired teacher.
But Frankie Bailey Dyches, the niece of one of the victims, said she was unmoved by such calls.
“I believe that he confessed,” said Dyches, who was born after the 1944 killings. “He was tried, found guilty by the laws of 1944, which are completely different now – it can’t be compared – and I think that it needs to be left as is.”
She also said: “I’ve heard stories here that I believe are false. It doesn’t change my feelings about what happened.”
Despite the divergent testimony, Finney, a son of the first black State Supreme Court chief justice since Reconstruction, said he believed that the session had been cathartic for people in this region, who have watched the case become the subject of a theatrical production and a 1991 movie. “I think it’s been beneficial for the community, and I hope the Stinney family feels like we’ve done some good,” he said.
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