70-year-old murder ‘case that will not die’ now up to judge

jmonk@thestate.comFebruary 24, 2014 

Teenager Executed

SC DEPARTMENT OF ARCHIVES AND HI — AP

All legal briefs have been filed, and it’s now up to an S.C. circuit judge to decide whether a guilty verdict in the 1944 trial and execution of 14-year-old George Stinney can be nullified.

Stinney is believed to one of the youngest, if not the youngest, person executed in the United States in the 20th century.

He was charged with murder in the bludgeoning deaths of two girls near his house. His trial in Clarendon County took two hours. No defense witnesses testified. His verdict was not appealed. He was executed some 80 days later.

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court has banned the execution of people as young as Stinney.

At play in the unusual legal case before Judge Carmen Mullen is a centuries-old legal doctrine whose Latin name is coram nobis, but whose rough purpose and English meaning is “Just do what is right,” said Columbia attorney Joe McCulloch, who filed an amicus brief in the case.

Specifically, the judge is to decide whether the 70-year-old jury verdict that found Stinney guilty of murder should be voided.

Stinney, an African-American, was in seventh grade when he was strapped into the state’s electric chair in June 1944 and executed. Twelve white men deliberated 10 minutes before finding him guilty, according to sketchy information now available. No transcript of the trial exists.

The case still lives because last year, Clarendon County lawyers, helped by a Charleston Law School professor, filed legal motions to nullify the jury verdict because of new evidence.

At a hearing last month, several of Stinney’s surviving siblings, now in their 70s and 80s, testified he couldn’t have killed the two young girls. The hearing attracted national attention.

At the hearing, Stinney family lawyer and Charleston Law School professor Miller Shealy invoked a 500-year-old unwritten coram nobis doctrine, which Shealy called a “last-ditch remedy at law.”

The Stinney case "really shocks the conscience" with its numerous unfair aspects, Shealy said. Stinney supposedly confessed to police, but a young black boy without legal representation might have been pressured into making a false confession, Shealy said.

The Stinney case “presents an egregious miscarriage of justice caused by the confluence of time, geography and a racial climate that would not be permitted today,” McCulloch’s amicus brief says. He filed it on behalf of the S.C. NAACP.

Overturning the guilty verdict “would not exonerate George Stinney Jr. of the accusations of murder, but serves as a symbolic recognition ... that denial of civil rights and unjust procedures will not be tolerated,” McCulloch’s brief said.

In reply, 3rd Judicial Circuit Solicitor Chip Ernest “Chip” Finney argued the verdict should stand.

“At the time, the police investigation led to Stinney,” Finney said. “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.”

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

Monday, Finney said he didn’t know when the judge might rule. “We’ve all put all cards on the table, and it’s now up to the judge,” Finney said.

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