Judge vacates boy's murder conviction

Teen was sent to electric chair for beating deaths of 2 girls in 1944

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A South Carolina judge on Wednesday vacated the conviction of a Clarendon County teenager executed 70 years ago for beating two young girls to death.

Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen issued a 30-page order, ruling that there was a "fundamental, Constitutional violation of due process" in the prosecution of George Stinney Jr.

Stinney, a 14-year-old Alcolu boy, is the youngest American prisoner sentenced to death in the 20th century. A black teen, he was put to death just 90 days after allegedly confessing to killing a pair of missing white girls at the height of the Jim Crow South in 1944.

"I am a teacher of God's word, and the only thing we have are our names," said George Frierson, a Clarendon County historian and school board member, who said he's worked on the case 10 years to clear Stinney's name. "We have given him his name back because when he was incarcerated, he was given a number. His name at birth was George Stinney Jr., and that's what he has back now. Not prisoner 260."

A team of Clarendon County attorneys called Stinney's case a travesty of justice and argued that his murder conviction should be overturned because he was never afforded any due process. Mullen did not declare Stinney guilty or not guilty, but the order essentially wiped the slate clean on the case.

Wednesday's ruling resulted from a motion Coffey, Chandler and McKenzie - a Manning law firm - filed in January seeking a hearing to vacate the conviction. Steve McKenzie, who helped spearhead the nearly six-year effort, said he was spurred to begin researching the case after reading a story about it in The Sumter Item. McKenzie, who has practiced law for several years at the Clarendon County Courthouse, said he was horrified to learn about what he characterized as a blatant injustice unfolding inside the same quarters he works every day.

"We have a duty in our profession to do justice," McKenzie said. "We looked at this and said this is an egregious miscarriage of justice. His (Stinney's) lawyer never put the state's case to the test; he never presented any witnesses."

During the Jan. 21 hearing inside Sumter County Judicial Center, Mullen heard three of Stinney's surviving siblings testify as well as a slate of expert witnesses, all of whom refuted the state's assertion that the 14-year-old boy committed the brutal double homicide.

Authorities said Betty June Binnicker, 11, and 7-year-old Mary Emma Thames went missing on March 23, 1944, while they were out picking flowers. Search crews discovered the bodies of both young girls the following morning, lying in a shallow ditch underneath a bicycle with a detached wheel. Both of the girls' heads had been crushed.

Within hours of finding the bodies, investigators took Stinney into custody and police said he confessed to killing the girls. Investigators varied on the exact method of the killing but eventually agreed that the girls were bludgeoned with an object described as a "railroad spike."

"Based on the facts presented in this Court," Mullen ruled, "methods employed by law enforcement in their questioning of the defendant may have been unduly suggestive, unrestrained and noncompliant with the standards of criminal procedure as required by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments."

With the investigation focusing solely on Stinney's confession, the boy was whisked through the justice system at an unusually rapid pace. He stood before a judge and an all-white jury as his murder trial got underway just 31 days after his arrest. Attorneys said the gruesome nature of the killing - mixed with its racial undertones - provoked a call for justice.

"When you think about a 14-year-old who is being put on trial for his life and he is the only African American in the courthouse," McKenzie said. "His parents weren't allowed, the prosecutor is white, the defense attorney was white, the judge was white, the bailiff is white, everybody on the jury is white, everybody sitting in the gallery is white.

"You think about somebody being alone; he was alone and without help," McKenzie said.

Ray Chandler said 850 people gathered outside the Clarendon County Courthouse during the trial.

It wasn't a long wait for the throng. The entire case lasted a single afternoon before Stinney was convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair. The trial portion of the proceedings lasted just two hours and 25 minutes.

"Stinney's appointed counsel made no independent investigation, did not request a change of venue or additional time to prepare his case," Mullen said in her order vacating the conviction. "He asked little or no questions on cross examination of the state's witnesses and presented few or no witness on behalf of his client based on the length of trial. He failed to file an appeal or a stay of execution. This is the essence of being ineffective and for these reasons the conviction cannot stand."

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