ALCOLU, S.C. — Seven decades after the state of South Carolina executed a 14-year-old black teenager for the murder of two white girls, the prospect of new evidence that could exonerate him highlights long-held racial divisions and fear.
In Alcolu the ghosts of its once thriving past as a lumber mill village are scattered all around. Little transition is left between its remaining Victorian mansions lining Main Street and the decrepit mill houses nearly swallowed whole by weeds and time. At its center, a hulking building that once housed the company store, a barber shop and doctor’s office. This shuttered hub of the town is now a patchwork of discarded junk, boarded up windows and tattered tin signs.
That spring, police details of Stinney’s alleged confession were swiftly routed to the governor’s office in Columbia. As clemency pleas came in to then-Gov. Olin Johnston, he responded with the graphic details relayed to him: “Stinney killed the smaller girl to rape the larger one. Then he killed the larger girl and raped her dead body. Twenty minutes later he returned and attempted to rape her again but her body was too cold.” That account, however, is in direct conflict with a recently found autopsy report that did not find evidence of a sexual attack.
Johnston’s letter “had no basis in fact. It was a complete lie,” said Manning attorney Ray Chandler, whose law firm is defending Stinney on Tuesday. New evidence — such as new witnesses, a review of the original autopsy report previously buried in state archives and a re-examining of events — potentially puts the case on new footing, he said. But first, the defense must establish standing with the court, proving there is enough at stake to take the case forward to trial.
News of a possible retrial is far from universally welcome in the town, still struggling with racial bias.
Jimmy Hodge, now 82, was 12 years old when his father joined the search party that eventually found the girls’ bodies. Despite news of fresh evidence, he still believes Stinney is guilty. “After 70 years, I don’t know where it all came from. Why is it just showing up now?”
Hodge denies the presence of racial tension in the area, calling Alcolu “a village where everybody got along. There was no race problem. They’re a different people and still are,” he said of the black community in Alcolu.
“No other race is like American-born Caucasian, in their heritage and in the way that they do things. And I think that’s why the Lord created more than one race,” he said.
“The two races separated themselves. They had their own way to do things,” Hodge said, adding, “but it wasn’t that they were against the other.”
Sonya Williamson, 50, said that while she grew up hearing about the Stinney case, she firmly believes in his innocence. In 1944 her grandfather attended Stinney’s trial, describing for the family how he was taken to court in a cage and could hardly walk under the weight of the shackles. Her grandfather came away with doubt, saying, “That colored boy didn’t do that,” a statement that still troubles her, she said. “Why did he not speak out?”
“I think it’s kind of a waste of time, myself,” said resident Russell Harrelson, a hobbyist historian for the area. “What good is it to stir into something that old? I think it’s going to stir up more controversy than it’s going to do good.”
The fear held tight all these years is such in the black community that some might agree with him and hope nothing comes of the case, according to Green Hill’s Hudley. “A lot of people are hoping that won’t nothing be done about it,” he said. “They will be relieved that the pressure they’re living under now will just soon vanish.”