SUMTER - George Stinney's two sisters and brother did something Tuesday they didn't get a chance to do almost 70 years ago: testify in open court about their brother's whereabouts on the day two girls were killed in Alcolu.
Both Katherine Stinney Robinson and Aime Stinney Ruffner testified that their older brother was innocent. George Stinney, then only 14, was put to death just 83 days after his arrest for the double homicide.
More than 100 spectators and news reporters packed two courtrooms here as Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen began an unusual hearing about whether that 1944 death penalty case should be reopened.
George Stinney was convicted in a daylong trial, one where there were no witnesses on his behalf. No appeal was filed, and he was led to the state's electric chair just 83 days later. He became the youngest person executed in this country in the 20th century.
"Let me begin by saying this is a tragic situation," Mullen said at the hearing's start. "No one here can justify a 14-year-old child being charged, tried and executed in 83 days. ... In essence, not much was done for this child when his life lay in the balance."
In recent years, the case has drawn fresh attention from local lawyers and activists who question whether Stinney received justice and whether he was even guilty of the crime. It is also subject of a new documentary.
Even those who believe he was guilty acknowledged that he might have deserved a longer trial and different sentence.
Legal experts say the case is an uphill climb because there are no surviving witnesses or transcripts and because the defendant was put to death. Both the lawyers pushing for a new trial and Third Circuit Solicitor Ernest "Chip" Finney have said they simply want to lay out the facts and let Mullen decide if there should be a new trial.
Katherine Robinson testified first but recalled very little directly of March 23-24, 1944, when the girls went missing, their bodies were found and her brother was arrested. She testified how her family fled Alcolu for Pinewood for safety.
"I recall being very nervous, just cold and shaking because I didn't know what was going on. I just knew George was not with us," she testified. "I never saw him again."
Aime Ruffner was closer to her brother, who often called her his "shadow." She says she remembered seeing the two girls come by asking if anyone had seen any maypops, an edible fruit.
"It was strange to see them in the neighborhood because I never saw them there before," she testified.
She also testified that she was with her brother all day as they returned from school and walked the family's cow, at least until George left with his father to help authorities search for the young women.
The hearing's tensest moment came when Finney asked Ruffner about a notarized statement she gave in New Jersey in 2009, a statement that Ruffner initially could not recall making or signing.
"Maybe I did," she said, prompting Finney to ask, "If you can't remember what you wrote down in 2009, how can you remember what happened in 1944?"
Judge Mullen intervened and asked Ruffner again about the statement, which she said she made. That statement, unlike Ruffner's Tuesday testimony, made no mention of her brother leaving with her father to search for the girls. Finney also noted the statement, unlike Ruffner's Tuesday testimony, also makes no mention of her hiding in the chicken coop when the authorities came to their house.
She testified that she saw her brother's body after his execution, saying, "He was burned." Asked if he were recognizable, she replied, "Not too much. Not really." She said the family buried him in an unmarked plot in Pinewood because "we were afraid people would come and desecrate his grave."
Brother Charles Stinney of Brooklyn testified via a Nov. 5, 2013, videotaped deposition because of his declining health. He testified that there was little room in his family's small home, which housed his mother and father and their four children.
Stinney said he and his mother went to the company store a half-mile away when his brother George took the cow out to graze. He testified that his sister Aime and George were together that afternoon, and neither he nor his sisters testified that they recalled seeing any bloody clothing of George's in their house.
Peter John Stephens, a forensic pathologist, was not here in person, but his deposition said the autopsy report of the girls appears to conflict with the details of Stinney's confession, particularly as far as whether the murder weapon was a hammer or railroad spike and whether a 95-pound boy could have inflicted such forceful blows.
The racially tinged case shines a fresh light into South Carolina justice in the Jim Crow era. Mary Emma Thames, 7, and Betty June Binnicker, 11, were white, and Stinney was black. But today, most attorneys working to reopen the case are white, while Finney is one of state's two black solicitors.
Ruffner drew some chuckles when she took the stand and asked what she remembered about South Carolina in 1944. "Nothing good," she replied.
Terri Evans of Manning, whose aunt was Mary Emma Thames, was among the spectators looking on Tuesday. She cradled a faded photograph of her family in her lap.
Evans said the only things she knows about the events of 1944 is hearsay, but her family has believed the correct person was arrested and tried.
"We cannot change history," Evans said. "Everything has been weighed for 70 years. I think it's time to let it go and move on."
But most of the comments on the "Redeem George Stinney Junior" Facebook page offered support for those working for a new trial. On the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the page contained a King quote: "Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."
The hearing will resume Wednesday, but it's unclear when Mullen will rule. She said Tuesday that her job is not to determine if Stinney was guilty or innocent, but whether he received a fair trial.
Stinney's supporters already have begun to ask the S.C. Pardon and Parole Board to issue a pardon, in case Mullen does not rule to reopen the case. Unlike a new trial that could find Stinney innocent, a pardon acknowledges his conviction but is a statement of society's forgiveness for the crime.
While the courts cannot bring their brother back to life, Stinney's siblings said they hoped this week's court hearing would recognize that he did not get justice at the time.
"I would love his name to be cleared," Ruffner said.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.