On Wednesday, December 17, 2014, South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen overturned the 1944 murder conviction of a 14-year-old boy. It did not his undo his execution, which occurred just 84 days after his two-hour trial and ten-minute jury deliberation.
The case highlights four issues the justice system struggles with, then and now: race, protection of the rights of those accused of heinous crimes, juveniles, and the death penalty. George Stinney, Jr. was 14 when he was accused of murdering two girls, ages eight and eleven. The girls were found beaten over the head with a railroad spike and left in a ditch. Stinney was black; the girls were white. The murders occurred in a tiny mill town called Alcolu in rural Clarendon County. According to news reports, police picked him up at home while his parents weren’t there. At the station, police questioned him alone. They claimed he confessed.
The case went to trial one month after the murders. No court transcript exists. Neither does physical evidence or a written confession.
Stinney went to the electric chair 84 days later. According to reports, he stood barely five feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds. He was too small for the straps and had to sit on books to reach the headpiece. After the execution began, his convulsions knocked off the face mask, reportedly exposing his tear-stained face.
Important facts revealed since included alibi evidence provided by Stinney’s sister, 77-year-old Amie Ruffner. She testified she was with George at the time of the crime, watching their family cow graze when the two girls came up on their bicycles. The girls asked them if they knew where to find maypops, then rode off. According to Stinney’s brother Charles, they never came forward because they were terrified of retaliation. They even fled their home after his arrest. A child forensic psychologist testified the confession was coerced and unreliable.
However, at least some evidence from time referred to Stinney’s possible guilt, including a handwritten statement of an investigating officer mentioning the confession and where to find the murder weapon. No record of the weapon exists. The son of the sheriff at the time told a Rock Hill newspaper in 2003 he rode with Stinney to prison, who said he was sorry about killing the girls.
Judge Mullen overturned the conviction with a rarely-used, sweeping legal ruling called a writ of coram nobis, designed to fix violations of constitutional rights. She observed, “I can think of no greater injustice than the violation of one’s Constitutional rights which has been proven to me in this case.” The ruling overturns the conviction based on fundamental constitutional violations, including:
- The confession may have been coerced, and Stinney was probably too young to give a valid confession.
- Stinney’s right to counsel was violated when his lawyer gave him an incompetent defense and filed no appeal of his death sentence.
- The all-white jury did not reflect the makeup of the community.
- Executing a minor is now recognized as unconstitutional.
Regardless of guilt or innocence, there is no place in civilized society for executing a child. Doing so rips the fabric of our society, as shown by this case—a family and community have been torn for seven decades over this. We commend the Stinney family for not giving up; we commend the judge for her courage in overturning this horrific injustice to an accused child and society as a whole. But we also recognize the agony hovering over the family of the victims, who struggle just as mightily wondering who it was that ripped these innocent children from their lives. In this case, no one got what they deserved in a case that can’t fully be solved.
As long as we have the death penalty in this country, agony and shame will loom over our justice system. It costs too much, it hurts too much, it puts too much pressure on judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and jurors who have to bear these awful accounts at trial and forces jurors to make a decision I’m adamant is for God and no one else. At its core, our judicial system is made up of people. People make mistakes, sometimes even when they do their very best. When people make mistakes in a death penalty trial, the searing truth is, the consequence often can’t be undone: the death of an innocent person.