Stinney family lawyer: ‘This case will not die’

jmonk@thestate.comJanuary 21, 2014 

— The state prosecutor fighting a bid to overturn a 70-year-old jury verdict and death sentence given a 14-year-old African-American boy in 1944 ripped into the defense case Tuesday, sending a clear signal the defense has an uphill struggle to get a new trial.

“The evidence here is too speculative, and the record too unclear, for this motion to succeed,” 3rd Circuit Solicitor Chip Finney told Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen in opening remarks to an overflow crowd at the Sumter County courthouse.

It was the first day of one of the most unusual criminal hearings in state history – the judge is hearing a motion to rule that the trial of young George Stinney Jr. in Clarendon County was so unfair, on so many grounds, that the jury verdict should be overturned.

The hearing resumes Wednesday for its second and final day. Mullen may issue a ruling at day’s end.

“This case will not die,” Stinney family lawyer Steve McKenzie told Mullen in his opening remarks, quoting a letter written to the governor in 1944 by a white librarian saying Stinney’s trial and execution will cause future South Carolinians to “look back with remorse and shame.”

Stinney was the youngest person ever executed in the United States. Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed executing juveniles. More strict criminal procedures protecting defendants’ rights have been enacted.

McKenzie was one of three Manning lawyers, assisted by Charleston School of Law professor Miller Shealy, who put up four witnesses Tuesday – three Stinney siblings in their 70s and 80s and a forensic pathologist.

The three siblings – two younger sisters and a younger brother – told a story of a law-abiding black family in a segregated but peaceful World War II-era Clarendon County rural community called Alcolu.

Their father, George Stinney Sr., worked in a sawmill; their mother, was a cook in an elementary school, they testified. It was a strict household, with churchgoing and attention to schoolwork. They had a cow and chickens and grew vegetables. They went to a school for black children. The kids did chores; George’s was to graze the cow, whose name was Lizzie.

Then one day, “everything went haywire,” Katherine Stinney Robinson, 79, a retired teacher from New Jersey, testified.

That was the day when two young white girls – Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 8 – were found bludgeoned to death, their bodies tossed in a trench not far from the Stinney house. They had been out bicycling and looking for maypops – a lemony little fruit.

Police soon came to the three-room Stinney house, searched it and took young George away. With their parents, the siblings fled Clarendon County that night and never saw him alive again. No Stinney family member was called to testify at the 1944 trial.

After his execution, they buried him in an unmarked plot “because we was afraid people would come to desecrate his grave,” one sibling testified.

Under questioning by McKenzie and another defense lawyer, Ray Chandler, the siblings’ testimony, taken as a whole, contained these points: that George Stinney didn’t have the opportunity to kill the girls; that at 95 pounds, he was too small; and police didn’t recover any bloody clothes from the house.

Stinney, a seventh-grader, also was portrayed as harmless.

“All he wanted to do was to be an artist and draw. Every time he saw an airplane fly overhead, he would try to draw it,” Aime Stinney Ruffner, 77, testified. “He was quiet, but he was smart.”

Finney cross-examined each sibling, getting them to acknowledge that for decades, they had done nothing to get a lawyer to challenge the case.

Earlier, in questioning Robinson, Finney got her to admit she actually hadn’t seen the two slain girls passing the Stinney house as she had claimed on direct examination by her own lawyer. The point was important because, in the context of the defense case, it would have gone to show Stinney couldn’t have killed the girls.

The fourth defense witness, a consulting pathologist, was used by Stinney family lawyers to try to show autopsies of the two slain girls were flawed, even by that era’s standards.

For one thing, there were only external examinations of the bodies, testified Dr. Peter John Stephens, an unpaid expert witness whose deposition was read in open court.

And although law officers claimed young Stinney used a railroad spike to rain death blows on the two girls’ heads, indentations described in the death reports are not consistent with a railroad spike, Stephens testified.

Neither girl was sexually assaulted, Stephens testified, despite a report of a law official’s claim that one of them was.

Finney put up one witness late Tuesday afternoon, Paul Fann, who in 1944 was a 10-year-old boy who worked for his father delivering ice in the Alcolu community.

Fann’s testimony contained this crucial point: he had been outside the Stinney house while law officers searched it and saw a man come out with “an armful of clothes. He went out and put them in a car.”

“Then they came out with a young man and put him in a car,” Fann said, describing how law officers took Stinney into custody.

Fann’s testimony contradicted earlier testimony by Stinney siblings that implied law officers hadn’t seized any of George’s clothing, which Finney says would have been bloody.

The hearing was to have been held in Manning, the county seat of Clarendon, where the Alcolu community is located. However, the Clarendon courthouse is undergoing renovation, so the hearing was moved to Sumter. Both Sumter and Clarendon are in the 3rd Judicial Circuit.

The case is fraught with irony: Clarendon County was the original plaintiff in the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., that integrated the nation’s schools. And Finney is the eldest son and namesake of South Carolina’s first black Supreme Court chief justice.

Hearing rules only allow Stinney family lawyers to challenge the 1944 trial’s fairness on factual and legal grounds, such as newly discovered evidence, which in this case is the siblings’ testimony.

The case is challenged in numerous other ways.

All the evidence – including the railroad spike, any bloody clothes and a so-called Stinney confession – has disappeared. No transcript of the trial was ever made; no one who attended the trial is known to be alive. Stinney’s court-appointed defense lawyer did not appeal the case. The trial lasted an afternoon, and the jury was out 10 minutes. His family was forbidden to attend the trial. Newspaper accounts of the event are fragmentary. The jury was all white.

“It’s the dirty hands of the state – that’s the basic reason we are here today,” Stinney lawyer Shealy told the judge.

In reply, Finney, said the state didn’t have “dirty hands” – the information available showed Stinney was given a trial, he had a lawyer and that 12 citizens convicted him.

In her opening remarks, Judge Mullen acknowledged the trial was a travesty that would never happen today.

But she said, no evidence showed the judge and prosecutor acted improperly.

“Even if we did retry Mr. Stinney, what would be the result?” she said. “We can’t bring George Stinney back.”

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