'An injustice done'

George Stinney Jr. was the youngest person ever executed in South Carolina in 1944. The teenager was executed just 84 days after two white girls were killed in the tiny mill town of Alcolu, according to newspaper accounts.

On Jan. 21, a circuit judge is scheduled to hold a hearing in Sumter County's new judicial center to decide if a 1944 death penalty conviction against George Stinney, a 14-year-old Clarendon County youth, should stand.

Both the lawyer seeking to open the case and the 3rd Circuit solicitor said they simply want to present the facts and let the judge decide if Stinney - the youngest American executed in a century - received a fair trial or was railroaded by a community understandably shaken by the violent killing of two young girls.

The case has more than its share of oddities and racial overtones. Stinney was black, and the victims were white. His defense attorney called no witnesses and never appealed. Stinney was strapped in the electric chair 83 days after the guilty verdict.

Today, there's no surviving trial transcript or evidence or surviving witnesses from that trial.

Third Circuit Solicitor Ernest "Chip" Finney's office will represent the state. Finney is the son of South Carolina's first black state Supreme Court justice and one of only two black chief prosecutors in the state. It's up to him to advocate for how the case was handled in the era of Jim Crow.

"The bottom line for me is, regardless of my personal feelings, I've got to go by the book," Finney said. "Unfortunately, because of the kind of error in history we have in South Carolina, this is not the only case where somebody might want to come forward and ask for special relief. Because of that, I'm duty-bound to make sure we follow the rules and procedures and that we give the justice system the means to handle these kind of controversies."

At the heart of the case is a terrible tragedy. Two white girls, ages 11 and 7, were bludgeoned with a railroad spike and left in a ditch near Alcolu, a tiny community about five miles from Manning.

The community launched a massive manhunt after they disappeared and found their bodies the next day. Stinney, who had spoken to the girls earlier, was arrested a few hours later. His father, who was part of the search party, was fired from a sawmill job and fled town.

Stinney was taken to Columbia to protect him from an angry mob and confessed to two deputies - a confession that wasn't questioned much then but certainly is today.

Stinney's court-appointed lawyer was a tax commissioner planning to run for a Statehouse seat, and the entire trial, from jury selection to the final sentencing, took one day. The defense called no witnesses. Gov. Olin Johnston was urged to commute the death penalty, but he did not.

"Everything about this case is quite unusual. It is a once-in-a-lifetime case in terms of the background we have been able to examine," Finney said. "The shortness of the trial, the fact that no appeal of the judgment was ever found, the fact that the governor and senators and other powers that be did not feel it necessary to have it reviewed before the judgment was carried out."

At 95 pounds, Stinney was too small for the straps on the state's electric chair. When the switch was pulled, the covering fell from his head and witnesses recoiled as they watched tears stream from his eyes.

Steve McKenzie, a Clarendon County lawyer, grew up in the neighboring county of Williamsburg and went to local schools, The Citadel and the South Carolina School of Law. He read a story about Stinney in the Sumter Item about four years ago.

"I was thinking to myself, 'Wow, this happened right here in the courthouse I've been practicing law in,' " he said. "I had never heard of this case, no word of it, so I got in touch with some people to try to get information about it."

McKenzie said the more he dug, the more curious he became, especially after he was able to find only the death warrant, a fingerprint card but no actual file. "That struck me as strange, especially in a death penalty case,' he said.

McKenzie began working with Clarendon County School District 3 Board member George Frierson, Atlanta lawyer Clayton Adams and other volunteers interested in seeing the case reopened.

They have compiled several bits of evidence they hope will show Stinney's confession was coerced, and that he did not receive a fair trial. McKenzie said Stinney's sister, Aime Ruffner, who was 7 at the time and currently lives in New Jersey, has signed an affidavit saying she was with her brother George the entire day.

Also, they have found a letter from Johnston's office saying that he declined to pardon Stinney because one of two deputies who interrogated Stinney had told Johnston that Stinney said he raped the older girl before she died. But McKenzie notes the autopsies show the girls were not raped.

"The amount of force it took to brutally murder these girls would have been significant. You're talking about a 95-pound, 5-foot-1-inch boy who would have had to have a significant amount of force to kill these girls," McKenzie said. "We have experts willing to come in now and say there is absolutely no way that this young boy with his size could have committed this crime."

Finney said his office has been reviewing this information and will test that evidence as much as possible at the upcoming hearing.

"Both sides in this controversy are still handicapped by the fact that there was no original trial transcript," he added. "We can only speculate as to how fair, efficient and how many rules were followed. We don't know, that's the problem. I would like to know more. I would like to have the trial transcript so we can see what the judge said, what the lawyers said, what the witnesses said, and we don't have that."

Miller Shealy, a legal professor who teaches criminal procedure at the Charleston School of Law, said he has read some of the facts about Stinney's trial and finds them "horrific."

"Clearly, there was an injustice done," Shealy said. "There is no way to defend that trial proceeding."

If Stinney were alive, Shealy said, he has no question there would be a new trial, but since that is not the case, McKenzie and his team have an uphill climb.

"The real legal barrier here unfortunately is that he is deceased, and he has been deceased since 1944," he said.

"Even though I sympathize, I don't see a legal basis for a court to really do anything," he added. "Now, having said that, I realize that sometimes courts just do things, and a circuit court judge could kind of wink at the law and just say, 'I'm going to give you a new trial. Let the attorney general appeal it,' which would be a horrific political position to put them in."

Shealy said Stinney's family and supporters may have a better chance at having him receive a posthumous pardon.

A court ruling to reopen the trial also would open "serious flood gates" for others seeking to clear the names of deceased friends or family members.

Shealy said even if a trial judge finds some reason to grant a new trial, "What happens then? Everybody cheers and says, 'Hooray, he's got justice,' but he doesn't have justice because he's not alive. His family may get some satisfaction."

Bishop Charles Stinney of Brooklyn, N.Y., was only 11 when his older brother was sentenced to death.

Stinney said he does not plan to make the trip to Sumter for the hearing but said, "We just hope that it gets straightened out. That's our hope - that it will get straightened out once and for all. It's been a long time coming."

Finney said he has talked recently with relatives of the girl victims, Betty Binnicker, 11, and Mary Thames, 7. And while they won't testify because they have no direct knowledge of what happened, they will be following the case.

"They've lived with this resolution for almost 70 years," he said, "and it is somewhat unsettling to them to have it being examined now, especially in light of the fact that there's nobody living now who can say, 'I was there and I saw this and I heard that' and all that."

Finney said unfortunately, the court rules in 1944 didn't ensure a more deliberate review, and he noted that today, all death penalty convictions are automatically appealed. "So we have progressed a lot in the last 70 years," he said. "We are thankful for that."

Finney said he is trying to block out the growing media buzz surrounding Stinney's upcoming hearing and keeping his focus on the facts.

"Historically speaking, a lot of people think that this is an opportunity to correct some things," he said, "but in the legal system we don't do things based on polling and emotional content. We do things by rules and regulations and procedures, and I just want to make sure that's carried out. I'm pretty happy with the result once that process is followed."

While McKenzie and Finney will sit at opposite tables, McKenzie said he has had great communication with Finney.

"He has told us he wants to see justice done," McKenzie said. "Obviously, we have to give him and the judge the evidence to be able to prove that justice can be done in this case. That's all we're interested in.

"If the judge says, 'Listen, George Stinney was given a fair trial,' then we'll have to live with that. We'll have to move on. ... We're not asking for any exceptions because this was George Stinney."

Finney said he has told many people the case is "truly a tragedy."

"Because even if Mr. Stinney did not commit the crime, these two young ladies deserved a better fate. We may never be able to give them the justice they deserve."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.