COLUMBIA, S.C. — Supporters of a 14-year-old black boy executed in 1944 for killing two white girls are asking a South Carolina judge to take the unheard-of move of granting him a new trial in hopes he will be cleared of the charges.
George Stinney was convicted on a shaky confession in a segregated society that wanted revenge for the beating deaths of two girls, ages 11 and 7, according to a lawsuit filed last month on Stinney’s behalf in Clarendon County.
The request for a new trial has an uphill climb, though.
The judge may refuse to hear it at all, since the punishment was already carried out. Also, South Carolina has strict rules for introducing new evidence after a trial is complete, requiring the information to have been impossible to discover before the trial and likely to change the results, said Kenneth Gaines, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s law school.
“I think it’s a longshot, but I admire the lawyer for trying it,” Gaines said, adding that he’s not aware of any other executed inmates in the state being granted new trials posthumously.
The request for a new trial is largely symbolic, but Stinney’s supporters say they prefer exoneration to a pardon.
At 14, he’s the youngest person executed in the United States in past 100 years. He was electrocuted just 84 days after the girls were killed in March, 1944.
The request for a new trial includes sworn statements from two of Stinney’s siblings who say he was with them the day the girls were killed. Notes from Stinney’s confession and most other information deputies and prosecutors used to convict Stinney in a one-day trial have disappeared – along with any transcript of the proceedings. Only a few pages of cryptic, hand-written notes remain, according to the motion.
“Why was George Stinney electrocuted? The state can’t produce any paperwork to justify why he was,” said George Frierson, a local school board member who grew up in Stinney’s hometown hearing stories about the case before deciding six years ago to study it and push for exoneration.
The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office will likely argue the other side of the case before the Clarendon County judge. A spokesman said their lawyers had not seen the motion and do not comment on pending cases.
A date for a hearing on the matter has not been set.
The girls were last seen looking for wildflowers in the tiny, racially-divided mill town of Alcolu about 50 miles southeast of Columbia.
Stinney’s sister, who was 7 at the time, said in her new affidavit that she and her brother were letting their cow graze when the girls asked them where they could find flowers called maypops. The sister, Amie Ruffner, said her brother told them he didn’t know and the girls left.
“It was strange to see them in our area, because white people stayed on their side of Alcolu,” Ruffner wrote.
The girls never came home. They were found the next morning, their heads beaten with a hard object, likely a railroad spike.
Deputies got a tip the girls had been seen talking to Stinney. They came to Stinney’s home and took him away. Charles Stinney said he remembered the events vividly because “for my family, Friday, March 24, 1944, and the events that followed were our personal 9/11.”
Newspaper stories from his execution had witnesses saying the straps to keep him in the electric chair didn’t fit around his small frame.
Executing teens wasn’t uncommon at that time. Florida put a 16-year-old boy to death for rape in 1944, and Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio and Texas executed 17-year-olds that year.
Lawyers also filed a request to pardon Stinney before the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services in case the new trial is not granted.
There is precedent for that. In 2009, two great-uncles of syndicated radio host Tom Joyner were pardoned by the board nearly 100 years after they were sent to the electric chair in the death of a Confederate Army veteran.
Joyner’s lawyers showed evidence the men were framed by a small-time criminal who took a plea deal that saved his life and testified against them.
But Frierson said a pardon would be little comfort to him in the Stinney case.
“The first step in a pardon is to admit you are wrong and ask for forgiveness. This boy did nothing wrong,” Frierson said.