A South Carolina judge on Wednesday vacated the conviction of a black teenager executed in 1944 for the murder of two white girls, saying he had not received a fair trial.
George Stinney Jr. was, at age 14, the youngest person to be executed in the United States in the past century. He was convicted of killing Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 7, in Alcolu, a segregated mill town, and was electrocuted three months after their deaths.
Stinney's trial lasted one day. Courtroom witnesses said he was taken to court in a cage and could hardly walk under the weight of the shackles.
Stinney's case has long been whispered in civil rights circles in South Carolina as an example of how a black person could be railroaded by a justice system during the Jim Crow era where the investigators, prosecutors and juries were all white.
The case received renewed attention because of a crusade by a textile inspector, George Frierson. Armed with a binder full of newspaper articles and other evidence, he and a law firm believed the teen represented everything that was wrong with South Carolina during the era of segregation.
"It was obviously a long shot but one we thought was worth taking," said attorney Matt Burgess, whose firm argued that Stinney should get a new trial.
Judge Carmen Tevis Mullen heard arguments in the appeal Jan. 21 and according to the The State, the appeal "focused on the brevity of the original trial – only two hours elapsed between the beginning of the trial and the imposition of the death penalty, and Stinney’s white, court-appointed attorney apparently offered no defense – and the fact that no evidence or even a transcript of the case could be found. The only apparent evidence against Stinney was a confession obtained by a white police officer without any parent or guardian present."
In her ruling, Mullen wrote that she was not overturning the case on its merits but on the failure of the court to grant Stinney a fair trial. She issued her ruling under the writ of coram nobis, which is used to correct errors of due process when there are no other legal remedies.
Mullen ruled the all-white jury could not be considered a jury of Stinney's peers, and his court-appointed attorney did “little to nothing” to defend him, according to the New York Times, and found his confession was probably coerced and unreliable, “due to the power differential between his position as a 14-year-old black male apprehended and questioned by white, uniformed law enforcement in a small, segregated mill town in South Carolina.”
She wrote, "I can think of no greater injustice than a violation of one's constitutional rights, which has been proven to me in this case by a preponderance of the evidence standard."
The two girls had been beaten badly in the head with an iron railroad spike in the town of Alcolu in Clarendon County, about 45 miles southeast of Columbia, authorities said. A search by dozens of people found their bodies several hours later.
Investigators arrested Stinney, saying witnesses saw him with the girls as they picked flowers. He was kept away from his parents after his arrest, and authorities later said he confessed.
His supporters said he was a small, frail boy so scared that he said whatever he thought would make the authorities happy. They said there was no physical evidence linking him to the deaths.
His executioners noted the electric chair straps didn't fit him, and an electrode was too big for his leg.
During the two-day hearing in January, Mullen heard testimony from Stinney's surviving brother and sisters, two white men who had helped search for the girls and experts who questioned the autopsy findings and Stinney's confession. Most of the evidence from the original trial was gone and almost all the witnesses were dead.
It took Mullen nearly four times as long to issue her ruling after the hearing as it took in 1944 to go from arrest to execution.
Al Jazeera with wire services