"No one here can justify a 14-year-old child being charged, tried, convicted and executed in some 80 days."
- S.C. Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen
BY RON BRINSON
Judge Mullen's comment summarizes the mindset of any South Carolinian who has considered the case of George Stinney, a pint-sized black teen-ager who in 1944 was charged with capital murder, tried, convicted and executed in an incredible 83-day rush to "justice."
It's just hard to believe our state - or any state - could ever have been that insensitive to the values of judicial due process, which we value and protect so vigorously these days.
We don't execute children, right? And we don't execute anybody without automatic appeals.
But that's exactly the package of justice South Carolina delivered to little George Stinney 70 years ago when he became the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century.
For sure, 1944 was a different time and our state was a different state, economically and socially. And current events were defining the environment of the Stinney case. World War II was approaching its D-Day turning point in Europe, and black men were distinguishing themselves on those brutal battlefields. South Carolina's incumbent governor Olin Johnston was amping up a racially-charged election campaign to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Cotton Ed Smith. Their Democratic Party was debating whether black men would vote in the party's nominating primaries.
And March 23, 1944, was apparently a nice early spring day in the Alcolu community of Clarendon County. That afternoon, two little girls went looking for "maypops," a purple wild flower that signaled spring's arrival. Riding their bikes, they ran into 14-year-old George Stinney and his younger sister, Amie, who were grazing the family cow "Lizzie."
But 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker, and 8-year-old Mary Emma Thames, did not return home. A search party that included George Stinney's father found the girls' bodies the next morning in a muddy ditch. Each had suffered fatal head wounds. Soon enough, young Stinney was taken into custody and, after reportedly confessing, he was charged with capital murder.
The teenager went to trial April 24, 1944. The proceedings lasted hours, not days. The jury returned its verdict after deliberating just 10 minutes, convicting George Stinney of capital murder and recommending no mercy.
Appeals were not statutorily mandated back then, and the family could not afford a lawyer. Governor-candidate Johnston refused all petitions to commute the sentence, and on June 16, 1944, George Stinney, barely five feet tall and weighing 91 pounds, was executed in Columbia - just 83 days after his arrest.
Was he guilty as charged? The all-white male jury clearly thought so.
But through the optics of time and social changes, the justice rendered to George Stinney on April 24, 1944, seems recklessly swift and literally blind - even for South Carolina, 1944.
Shortly after the trial, Lorraine Binnicker Bailey, the sister of Betty June Binnicker, declared, "Everybody knew that he done it, even before they had the trial they knew that he done it. But, I don't think that they had too much of a trial."
Describing the one-day proceedings as not "too much of a trial" seems an understatement.
And now, seven decades after Stinney's execution, a respectful group of advocates are before Judge Mullen, asking for a new trial. A docu-drama movie will soon be released, too: "83 Days: the Murder of George Stinney Jr." written by Ray Lenard Brown, who describes himself as "President/CEO of Pleroma Studios Entertainment, an independent motion picture production company that is located near Washington, D.C."
"We want them to consider the possibility that he was wrongly convicted and executed for something he did not do," said Brown.
But Judge Mullen made it clear her task is not to determine guilt or innocence but whether young George got a fair trial. Her ruling is expected within a month.
Most legal analysts agree that a new trial is a reach. But this hearing itself is a victory for those who want the case revisited, if only for the purpose of reminding South Carolinians of some very dark days in its criminal justice history.
That purpose has been achieved.
Judge Mullen of Hilton Head Island, who once served in the Charleston Public Defender's Office, offered this compelling summary point: "In essence, not much was done for this child when his life lay in the balance."
It seems that Judge Mullen takes her humanity to the bench, and her subjective comments in a very objective proceeding should stir our conscience.
In 2014, South Carolina lives closer to the standard that justice is a ponderous process of fairness, or it is not justice. Judge Mullen and the officers of her court in Sumter must work with missing records and severely-dated memories and evolved state laws.
They are doing their best, and clearly, they're giving George Stinney a fairer and more complete judicial process than he received over those incredible 83 days in 1944.
Ron Brinson is a former associate editor of this newspaper and a North Charleston city councilman. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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