Yesterday a South Carolina court vacated the conviction of George Stinney, an African -American convicted in 1944 of the murder of two white pre-teen girls. The reversal comes a little late and more than a dollar short since Stinney was executed by electric chair for the crime over 70 years ago. He was 14 years old and remains the youngest person ever put to death in the 20th Century and 21st Century.
Allow me to lay before you the evidence that convicted young George all those years ago. The two girls were riding their bikes looking to pick flowers. They asked George and his younger sister where might be a good place to go looking for flowers. You see, white folks and black folks in the small town of Alcolu were separated by the railroad tracks. So the girls, ages 11 and 8, were unaccustomed to being on the “wrong side of the tracks.” When the girls never made ti back home, a huge search party was formed involving hundreds of volunteers.The Stinneys told some of the searchers about that fateful conversation. When the girls’ were found the next day in a ditch, dead from massive head wounds, George was arrested and charged with their murder.
He was tried a few months later. At his trial, three sheriffs testified that he had confessed to the killing, even yet there was no written confession. The only other witnesses were the man who found the bodies and the coroner. The trial took less than a day including the time it took to select the all-white jury. (Since Blacks could not be jurors in Clarendon County South Carolina). In fact, the record shows that the testimonial portion of the trial took a mere two and a half hours. George’s lawyer was a local tax commissioner in the middle of running for re-election. He called no witnesses (not even putting George on the stand to deny the crime). The jury returned the guilty verdict in ten minutes and George was immediately sentenced to death by Old Sparky, as the electric chair was affectionately known. His family was not there to support him as they had been forced to leave town immediately after George’s arrest. His lawyer did not file an appeal so he was sent to the electric chair only 81 days after the crime was committed.
The story does not get any prettier when you look at his execution. The child was led down the hallway carrying only the Bible that was given to him at the jail. It was a good thing he brought it because the jailers needed to use it to boost George up in the seat. Even sitting on the Bible, his 90 pound frame was too small for Old Sparky and his execution took four minutes of repeated 2,400 volt electrical charges because the adult-sized mask kept falling off of George’s face and his arm slipped out of the left restraint .
New evidence was discovered recently by a team working on his posthumous exoneration. One of the men working on the case, George Frierson, stated in interviews that “…there has been a person that has been named as being the culprit, who is now deceased. And it was said by the family that there was a deathbed confession.” Frierson also said that the rumored murderer came from a well-known, prominent white family. Members of that family, had served on the initial coroner’s inquest jury (like a Grand Jury) which had recommended that George be prosecuted. That evidence and the lack of any evidence pointing to George led the Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen to vacate the conviction and exonerate George Stinney. A small victory for his family who had doggedly pursued the re-opening case for decades. So that’s George Stinney. May he now rest in peace.
But George Stinney should also be a symbol. A symbol for they way Blacks were treated in the justice system back in the day. The vestiges of that prejudice are still with us today. George’s case should also be a clear statement of why the Death Penalty must be abolished across the country. George’s case should serve as reminder of the need to provide the poor with qualified and effective counsel. As someone who is involved in trying to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, I have seen that most of those individuals would likely not have been convicted in the first place had they received qualified and effective lawyers. That fact is true in the cases of the three men I have exonerated over the last twelve years. – quality lawyering would probably have resulted in acquittals. We all claim to value the principles on which this nation was founded and most folks can quickly tell you why they support the First and Second Amendments to the Constitution. But too few people – especially elected officials and judges – are willing to stand up and proclaim that the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution are of equal value to our society. We never hear anyone acknowledge that when we talk about our armed forces fighting to protect our way of life that the Founding Fathers placed extraordinarily great weight on the rights of individuals accused of crimes and the rights of citizens to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Let George Stinney’s case remind all of us that these rights and freedoms are every bit as important as the rest of the Bill of Rights and that the fair implementation of them is the surest way to make sure that George Stinney’s tragedy does not get repeated.