SUMTER - This week's hearing about whether 14-year-old George Stinney received a fair trial in 1944 lasted several times longer than his original trial, where he was found guilty of murdering two young Alcolu girls and was sentenced to death.
On Wednesday, Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen gave both sides a few weeks to work on issues in the case, and her ruling could come as early as next month.
Third Circuit Solicitor Chip Finney urged her to leave the case alone, despite its flaws.
"This would not happen today," Finney said. "While we along with others have questions about the 1944 trial and its outcome ... the evidence here is too speculative and the record is too uncertain for the motion to succeed."
Those seeking to void the trial's outcome said Stinney did not receive justice. His trial lasted about two hours; his defense attorney called no witnesses, didn't cross examine anyone and filed no appeal. His siblings who knew their brother best were not interviewed by authorities and did not see or talk to him after his arrest. He was led to the electric chair just 83 days later and became the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century.
Attorney Miller Shealy of Charleston, part of the team seeking to reopen Stinney's case, acknowledged the legal challenges because the case is 70 years old and its transcript is missing. But he urged Mullen to look past that.
"It's the dirty hands of the state that caused any standing problems or jurisdictional problems for us to be here," Shealy said. "This case was handled so poorly, his family was treated so poorly, that his rights were snuffed out then. ... This is something that needs to be expunged. It needs to be addressed in our state's history."
Finney denied that the state had dirty hands, and said the case's biggest defect was the passage of time.
The two-day hearing included testimony Monday from Stinney's three surviving siblings, as well as experts questioning other aspects of the case, such as whether a 14-year-old was strong enough to deliver the blows.
The racially tinged case shines a fresh light into South Carolina justice in the Jim Crow era. Stinney, who was black, was convicted of bludgeoning to death two Alcolu friends and neighbors, Betty June Bennicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 7, who were white. Most of the attorneys who have worked to reopen the case are white, while Finney is one of the state's two black solicitors.
Amanda Salas, a forensic psychiatrist who wrote her dissertation on the Stinney case, testified Tuesday that Stinney's confession doesn't fit the evidence, and that false confessions, particularly from children, are common for many reasons.
She also noted that Johnny Hunter, a cellmate of Stinney, said Stinney would interrupt him often with a question about his fate. "He would ask, 'Why would they want to electrocute me for something I didn't do?'" she testified. "Johnny acknowledged he had no explanation for it. It would just be a moment where they would sit and pause."
Salas testified for about an hour before concluding, "It is my professional opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the confession given by George Stinney on March 24, 1944, is best characterized by a coerced compliant, false confession. It is not reliable."
Descendants of all three families have attended at least part of the hearing, and they remain divided over whether Stinney committed the crime.
Frankie Bailey Dyches of Goose Creek, whose mother was Betty June's older sister, testified that her family always believed justice was done, and that resurrecting the trial is painful.
"My grandparents to begin with never recovered," she said. "That was their baby daughter."
Stinney's extended family also turned out in force, and while most didn't testify, they were pleased that the hearing was held.
Irene Lawson-Hill of Florence said her mother and Stinney were cousins. She said the hearing "means God has listened to somebody. It's just like a weight off my chest."
Eliza Nelson Reid, who wore a Stinney-Stinny-Stinnie family reunion shirt to court, said some family members were so afraid in the wake of the 1944 case that they changed the spelling of their last name. "We're a proud family, and we speak of George," she said. "The word 'closure' is not significant enough to apply to this case."
If Mullen rules to void the trial's judgment, the family would win a symbolic victory.
If she rules to let the 1944 trial stand, then those working to clear Stinney's name would turn their focus to the S.C. Pardon and Parole Board, which would consider issuing a pardon.
Peter O'Boyle, the spokesman for the seven-member board of Parole and Pardons, said Stinney's application is pending and its investigation should conclude next week. Depending on Mullen's ruling, the board could hear the case within a few months.
Clarendon County attorney Steve McKenzie, who was working pro bono to help the Stinney family, said regardless of Mullen's ruling, this week's hearing presented a side of the story that wasn't heard in court in 1944.
"I think we got George Stinney's story out there," he said. "I think we got some of the family's story out there that back in 1944 no one was able to get out there."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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