Hearing likely in SC 1944 teen execution case

jmonk@thestate.comDecember 10, 2013 

— A one-of-a-kind hearing for a new trial likely will be held next month in Manning during which evidence will be aired in a 69-year-old double murder that ended in the execution of 14-year-old George Stinney, the youngest person put to death in the United States in modern times.

“My office is trying to get the court to give us a date when the motion for a new trial can be heard,” 3rd Circuit Solicitor Ernest “Chip” Finney III said Tuesday.

Earlier this year, Stinney’s family — two surviving Stinney sisters and the surviving brother — retained lawyer Steven McKenzie of Manning to file a 64-page motion for a new trial.

They cite new evidence, including affidavits by surviving Stinney siblings who didn’t testify at his 1944 trial.

“I will be the solicitor who has the ability to cross-examine witnesses, ask questions and help the court determine the truth and whether the defendant is entitled to a new trial,” Finney said.

“I’m not opposed to the motion; I’m not in favor of the motion. My job is to just help get to the truth,” Finney said.

On March 23, 1944, the bodies of two young girls, Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 7, were found with severe head wounds at the bottom of a ditch in a rural area outside Manning. Within two days, young Stinney — who weighed just 95 pounds and stood 5 feet 1 inch — was charged with murder in their deaths.

Stinney was arrested and went on trial less than a month later.

The case had racial overtones. Stinney was black; the murdered girls were white. The jury was all white; in that era, blacks were not allowed to serve on juries.

On April 24, 1944, a Clarendon County jury deliberated 10 minutes before convicting him of murder in the brutal death of Betty June Binnicker. He did not stand trial for the killing of Thames.

The trial, including jury selection, had lasted less than a day. There reportedly was no cross-examination of witnesses. Evidence the jury heard included a confession, which Stinney supporters now dispute.

Stinney was executed a month later, on June 16, 1944. His lawyer failed to file for an appeal, which would have delayed the execution, the motion says.

Any hearing today will be difficult. Most witnesses have long since died. No “recoverable official records or transcripts relating to the young boy’s trial” now exist, says the motion for a new hearing, noting, “Everything has been lost or destroyed by the County of Clarendon.”

New evidence includes statements from family members that young Stinney was “present alongside members of his family for the entire day,” according to the motion.

The motion also cites rampant rumors that surround the case to this day, including an allegation that Stinney was offered ice cream to confess and another supposed “deathbed confession” made by a white man who claimed he in fact killed the two girls.

The few facts remaining are “no physical evidence linking Stinney to the murders, no written record of the confession he is said to have given, no witnesses who claim to have seen him with the girls and no trial transcript,” the motion says.

Tuesday, a crowd of some 80 Stinney supporters gathered outside the Clarendon County courthouse — among them representatives of the S.C. NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership conference — had no doubt of what the truth was. It was the same courthouse in which Stinney was convicted.

“The fight is not over!” Irene Lawton-Hill told the crowd. Now 71, she is a second cousin of Stinney. “We want this case to go forward; there’s a lot hidden,” she said.

George Frierson, a Clarendon County school board member and one of the key organizers of Tuesday’s event, also spoke.

“What if it were us or one of our children?” Frierson said.

Frierson, 61,who grew up in the same small Clarendon County community of Alcalá that Stinney did, has been researching the case for years.

Finney said if Stinney supporters can’t get a new trial, other avenues include seeking other kinds of relief including a possible pardon from the governor or the S.C. Board of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.

Asked if a pardon means someone is innocent, Finney said pardon doesn’t take away a criminal conviction.

Stinney would not be executed today, even if it could be proven he were guilty. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it would be “cruel and unusual punishment” to execute anyone charged with committing murder when they were 17 or younger.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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