On June 16, 1944, 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. became the youngest person executed in the 20th century.
Tried and convicted of murdering two girls months before in Alcolu, South Carolina, Stinney’s small frame didn’t even fit properly on the electric chair, according to newspaper reports at the time.
He weighed 95 pounds and stood just over five feet tall. He was executed in an oak electric chair built only for adults.
A 27-page motion was filed on October 25 to grant Stinney a new trial and a chance to posthumously clear his name – some 70 years later.
“We are confident that we can present enough evidence that the judge will look at this from the standard of today and say, ‘this was not justice that was served back in 1944,'” said Steve McKenzie, lead counsel on the Stinney case.
The push for a new trial and the opportunity to fully and legally exonerate Stinney is largely symbolic. His trial in 1944 lasted only a few hours. The jury deliberated for 10 minutes. Stinney was sentenced to death by electrocution.
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No appeal was filed.
“We cannot undo that,” McKenzie said of Stinney’s ultimate fate. “Our justice system is not perfect, but it’s the best in the world. And at that time, we believe this was one of the times the justice system failed. It’s a terrible set of facts and terrible set of circumstances.”
“But if we don’t protect George Stinney, we don’t protect anyone,” McKenzie said.
Alcolu was a racially-divided mill town. The two girls who were found murdered, Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames, were white, and the community was eager for their killer to be brought to justice.
Stinney, a young black boy, allegedly said he had seen the girls earlier that day.
Today, there remains no record of the trial. No witnesses were called on Stinney’s behalf.
TheGrio interviewed Stinney’s brother Charles back in October, 2011. Charles, a retired pastor living in Brooklyn, NY, was supportive of efforts to clear his brother’s name, but remained deeply saddened by his death.
“[George] already paid with his life and nothing will…even if they take it [off the state’s official records] it will still not bring him back,” he said.
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Charles and George’s other living sibling Amie Ruffner provided sworn statements which are included in the motion, claiming their brother was with family members at the time of the murders.
Since 2011, McKenzie and his firm have been pursuing leads, researching and interviewing potential witnesses.
“The easy way out is to deny [a new trial],” said Kenneth Gaines, an associate professor of law at University of South Carolina Law School. “It’s a lot harder to go ahead and say, ‘I’m going to take these facts and line these up in favor of defense and reopen this thing.'”
Gaines, who reviewed the motion, puts the chances of a judge granting a new trial at “30 percent.” He said the passage of time and the lack of any new physical evidence is a “headache.”
“We have our Constitution, it evolves as we go,” Gaines said of how Stinney could have even been killed in the first place. “It just doesn’t evolve fast enough.”
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A South Carolina historian, George Frierson, has been researching the Stinney case for several years. His interview about the case in a South Carolina newspaper was what attracted McKenzie to pursue a new trial in the first place.
It was also personal.
“I never knew that the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century was tried and convicted in the same courthouse that I had been practicing law in for 20 years,” McKenzie said.
A spokesman for the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office told the Associated Press‘ Jeffrey Collins that their lawyers had no comment because the case is pending.
A hearing date for a judge to review the motion filed has not been set. McKenize and his team said they hope the Stinney case can be resolved before the end of the year.
Follow theGrio.com’s Correspondent Todd Johnson on Twitter @rantoddj