Nearly 70 years ago, a 14-year-old Sumter boy George Stinney was executed for killing two girls, ages 7 and 11. Stinney was black, the girls were white. The case has flared racial tensions in the tiny town of Alcolu for nearly seven decades, spurred by the boy’s age and a now-vanished confession that prosecutors used to secure his conviction.
On Tuesday, Stinney’s family and supporters argued in a Sumter County courtroom that the teen should be granted a new trial in order to clear his name. A lawyer representing the family claims there was not enough evidence to find Stinney guilty and that he was coerced into confessing to the crimes.
Miller Shealy, a legal professor in criminal procedure at the Charleston School of Law, spoke before Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen. He said the opportunity must be afforded to remove this stain in South Carolina history.
“We can’t correct what happened 70 years ago,” he argued Tuesday. “But if there is any way today we can say that George Stinney, Jr. was not guilty, that he was treated unjustly, we can at least make some step toward dealing with the fact that only South Carolina has the record of executed someone 14-year-old in the 20th century.”
Stinney’s trial lasted one day. He died in the electric chair 84 days after the girls were killed in March 1944.
In a touch of irony, arguing against a new trial is prosecutor Ernest “Chip” Finney III, the son of South Carolina’s first black chief justice. In his opening statement, Finney said records from the initial trial were lost with the passage of time, not destroyed.
“Based on the fact that 70 years have been allowed to pass by and that we don’t have complete record to go by, I can certainly stand here now and tell you that I am shocked and dismayed that an electrocution took place. George Stinney certainly did not deserve that and he should not have been put in that position.”
But while he disapproved of the execution, Finney argued there is not enough evidence either way to justify re-opening the case 70 years later. Relatives of one of the girls killed, 11-year-old Betty Binnicker, have also spoken out against the hearing, saying they believe Stinney was guilty.
Surviving members of the family offered testimony concerning Stinney’s whereabouts the day the girls were killed.
Lawyers representing the Stinney family also presented a trained forensic pathologist as an expert witness. The pathologist said the medical report on the girls was based solely on external examinations and were not thorough autopsies. That report concluded that the girls were bludgeoned to death and placed in a ditch that contained water.
Judge Mullen called a recess in the proceedings in a hearing that often seemed more like a trial. The hearing resumes Wednesday morning at 10:00 a.m.