Long-dead Stinney will have new trial hearing in January

jmonk@thestate.comDecember 17, 2013 

George Stinney Jr.

The case of a 14-year-old from Clarendon County who was executed by South Carolina for murder 69 years ago will get a hearing in Sumter on Jan. 21.

Attorneys representing relatives of George Stinney — the youngest person to be executed in the 20th century — had filed a motion in Clarendon County in late October seeking the hearing.

“I think the hearing will probably take most of the day,” 3rd Circuit Solicitor Chip Finney said Tuesday.

The Stinney family attorney, Steven McKenzie of Manning, was not available for comment. But Finney said McKenzie will begin the hearing.

“It’s his motion — he moves first,” Finney said.

McKenzie is expected to present witnesses who will give evidence he hopes will convince the judge to grant a new trial for Stinney. In a legal brief, McKenzie has said his new evidence includes affidavits by surviving Stinney siblings who didn’t testify at his 1944 trial.

Finney’s office will be allowed to cross-examine question those witnesses.

A judge has not yet been appointed, 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 last week after a meeting with Stinney supporters in Manning.

The long-ago case was sensational, even by today’s gruesome standards.

On March 23, 1944, the bodies of two 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. They had been pummeled with a railroad spike.

Within two days, Stinney — who weighed just 95 pounds and stood 5 feet 1 inch — was charged with murder in their deaths. He went on trial less than a month later.

On April 24, 1944, a Clarendon County jury deliberated 10 minutes before convicting him of murder in Betty June Binnicker’s death. Stinney 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.

The January hearing will have numerous unusual features. Evidence such as the alleged murder weapon, a railroad spike, is non-existent. No transcript of the trial proceedings has been located. Neither has the confession.

“Everything has been lost or destroyed by the County of Clarendon,” McKenzie said in his motion for a new trial.

McKenzie’s 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 killed the two girls.

However, rumors are generally not considered valid evidence in American courts of law.

If a judge were to grant a new trial, there would likely be no new trial, since there is no evidence that a prosecutor could use.

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.

In the years since Stinney was executed, the U.S. Supreme Court — citing “evolving standards of decency” — has narrowed the classes of people who are eligible for execution. In 2002, the high court ruled that people who are “mentally retarded” cannot be executed.

Moreover, numerous safeguards designed to ensure that no one is mistakenly executed have been implemented. These include automatic appeals of death penalty cases to higher courts for review.

The Clarendon County courthouse, where Stinney was originally tried, is undergoing renovation and the courtroom is not available.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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