Putting a 14-year-old to death: "A fair trial or a coerced confession?"

jmonk@thestate.comJanuary 22, 2014 

— Emotions ran high as two days of state and defense testimony wrapped up Wednesday, putting a close to an unusual hearing about whether a 70-year-old jury verdict should be voided in the case of an executed 14-year-old boy.

Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen made no decision in the case of long dead George Stinney Jr. of Clarendon County. The African-American seventh-grader was strapped into the state’s electric chair in June 1944 after a two-hour trial in which a jury of 12 white men found him guilty of murder in the bludgeoning deaths of two young white girls.

Mullen gave 3rd Circuit Solicitor Chip Finney 10 days to submit a written brief in the case and defense lawyers 10 more days after that to reply to Finney’s brief.

At issue: whether Mullen will vacate the jury’s guilty verdict, which by contemporary accounts took the jury just 10 minutes to reach. Stinney is believed to have been the youngest person put to death in the United States during the 20th century.

Earlier Wednesday, witnesses for both Finney – who opposes overturning the jury verdict – and Stinney family lawyers – who want the verdict tossed – testified to emotions and events that gave modern-day onlookers a glimpse of the tension of 1944.

“If you live by the sword, you die by the sword,” testified Frankie Bailey Dyches, now 67, whose mother, Lorine, was the older sister of Betty June Binnicker, the 11-year-old Stinney was convicted of killing. Stinney also was accused of killing Mary Emma Thames, 8, at the same time and tossing their bodies into a ditch.

Dyches was being cross-examined by Stinney family lawyer Steve McKenzie, who was trying to get Dyches to admit that Stinney did not have a fair trail.

“Some people didn’t get trials who were accused of this,” Dyches told McKenzie in an apparent reference to widespread lynching of black people that occurred across South Carolina in the first half of the 20th century.

Stinney was just three months shy of being 15 and had the capacity to know what he was doing, Dyches said.

“Would you be okay if it were your 14-year-old being taken into a police investigation and questioned without you present?” McKenzie asked.

“Knowing my children, yes,” Dyches replied, because they know right from wrong.

Earlier, Dyches was asked by Finney if she was in favor of keeping the case closed.

“I believe he confessed, was tried, found guilty by the laws of 1944, which are completely different now – they can’t be compared – and I think it needs to be left as is.”

Earlier in the day, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Amanda Salas, testifying for the Stinney family, said she thought the boy’s confession was “coerced, compliant and false.”

“It is not reliable,” said Salas, who was admitted as an expert witness and who was on the witness stand more than 90 minutes.

In testimony under questioning from Stinney lawyer Ray Chandler, Salas said factors that shaped her opinion that Stinney gave a false confession included:

• Stinney’s age – at 14, the human brain is still unformed and the mind can be very susceptible to an authority figure suggesting he confess to a deed he didn’t do, she said.

• Stinney also wrote his family a letter prison denying the murders.

• The power imbalance between Stinney and the white law enforcement officials he was dealing with would have contributed to Stinney’s giving a false confession. Stinney didn’t have a parent or a lawyer at his side.

• No evidence exists that young Stinney was a trouble-maker; interviews with surviving family members say that he was a nice “compliant” boy and not the type to suddenly kill two little white girls.

•  A lack of any known witnesses who could have put Stinney in the company of the two girls

•  Although according to one contemporary account, one of the girls had been raped, an autopsy report made of both girls determined that neither had been sexually assaulted. And Stinney’s personality profile indicated he, unlike many 14-year-old boys, wasn’t interested in sex.

“He’s more into playing marbles, reading books, making whistles – he enjoyed art,” Salas testified.

Everyone who participated in the trial is now dead. But Salas also testified she had recently talked to a man, now in his 80s, who was in a jail cell with George Stinney Jr. at the time of the 1944 trial.

The man, Johnny Hunter, who was 17 in 1944, told Salas that Stinney asked him, “Why would they want to electrocute me for something I didn’t do?”

Another time, Hunter told Salas, Stinney saw the word ‘’future” in a magazine and said, “Gee, I don’t have a future.”

At one point, Judge Mullen wondered how South Carolina civil rights history intersects with the case, asking lawyers why the Stinney family didn’t hire a lawyer and challenge the case decades ago.

“Why didn’t they come forward in 1954, when we had the (U.S. Supreme Court) Board vs. Board of Education decision, or throughout the civil rights era? It’s kind of a why now? Why has it taken so long” Mullen asked, noting that the “passage of time” troubles her.

Salas replied that the Stinney family was so traumatized by what had happened, that they had to flee the county the night George was arrested, and that the father, George Stinney Sr., took the attitude, “We are moving forward – we have nothing we can do to impact this.”

Later, Mullen wondered aloud why no major legal rights group, such as the NAACP or the ACLU, had gotten involved in the case. Stinney lawyers said they didn’t know.

In closing arguments, Stinney family lawyer Miller Shealy invoked a 500-year-old unwritten law known by its Latin phrase, coram nobis.

Under this ancient doctrine – Shealy called it “a last-ditch remedy at law” – a defendant against whom a judgment was made has the right to present new evidence to the same court he was convicted in, in hopes the court will vacate the original verdict.

The Stinney case “really shocks the conscience” with its numerous unfair aspects, Shealy said.

Defense lawyers said that Stinney’s trial lawyer called no witnesses; that there was no transcript kept of the trial; that evidence such as the piece of metal that was the murder weapon was not kept; that Stinney was executed only some 80 days after he was found guilty; that no appeal was made; and that Stinney’s family felt like they had to flee the county before trial.

In reply, Finney argued that while “it may sound harsh,” George Stinney is the only one who legally can challenge the verdict, and he is dead.

“This was a double murder of two little girls, who were out doing what little girls do on a spring afternoon,” Finney said. “The investigation led to George Stinney, we don’t exactly know why, but it did, and after that, we are told there was a confession, which included the finding and turning over of the murder weapon.”

The trial was 30 days later, he said. “Even though the trial was very short, it did occur, and ended with a verdict,” Finney said. “The jury had an opportunity to return a recommendation of mercy, so the judge could not sentence to death.”

“We’re using the rules we work with today to evaluate a case that happened in 1944,” Finney said. “We would ask the court to keep the matter closed, and the judgment intact.”

After the hearing, George Stinney, 40, of Charlotte, the son of the executed boy’s brother, Charles, said he was glad the hearing took place.

When young George Stinney died in the electric chair, he died alone and without family, Stinney said.

“The family is here for him now – no one was there for him then. We have come a long way,” he said.

The case has attracted national attention. In the courtroom Wednesday were a New York Times reporter, an NBC-TV national news crew and a historian from New York state who is writing a book on the case.

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