Fourteenth Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen could have waved off George Stinney’s case when it landed on her docket last January, citing the passage of 70 years since the 14-year-old’s conviction and execution in Clarendon County.
Many judges would have chosen not hear the sensitive and difficult case of a black boy put to death in the killings of two young girls in a small, segregated mill town, friends and colleagues said.
But that is not Mullen’s way, they say.
Her decision in December to exonerate Stinney was courageous, if not surprising, said 5th Circuit Judge L. Casey Manning, who has known Mullen since she served as his law clerk after graduating from law school.
“Her intellectual ability and intelligence are surpassed only be her honesty and integrity,” Manning said. “I know she did the right thing.”
Kenneth Gaines, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, agreed the ruling would have taken nerve, though the constitutional violations in Stinney’s case were obvious.
“You’re still in South Carolina,” said Gaines, who has researched Stinney’s case. “You’ve still got a Confederate flag flying in the Statehouse. I do think it takes a little courage in this state, still,” to do what Mullen did.
Mullen, of Hilton Head Island, heard the case as a visiting judge in the 3rd Circuit, during a routine rotation throughout the state. The case made national news with her decision to throw out Stinney’s conviction – the result of a one-day trial and 10-minute deliberation by a jury of white males.
Reached a few days after the ruling, Mullen said the biggest difficulty in the case was in recreating a trial record with next to nothing in the way of official documents and few living witnesses.
Still, hearing the case was important, she said, as Stinney’s family deserved a chance to appear in court – they were not allowed to be present for the teenager’s trial–- and the state deserved an opportunity to address decades of criticism over his treatment.
Certain acts cannot be undone, Mullen said, “but I think both sides needed an opportunity to be heard.”
Mullen said the ruling was difficult, but she isn’t concerned about the possibility of pushback in her run for re-election next year.
“I wouldn’t have any regrets (if I was not re-elected). I go home and I feel good about what I’ve done,” she said. “It was a violation of someone’s constitutional rights. If we let our constitutional rights erode, we will be at the point where we wouldn’t be a democracy anymore, and that scares me.”
Portions of her order speak to her compassion for Stinney, regardless of his guilt or innocence.
“A 14-year-old boy cannot confront his accusers,” Mullen wrote. “He needed his lawyers to help.”
Hilton Head Island attorney David Berry, who ran a practice with Mullen when she was an attorney and now argues cases before her, said he wasn’t surprised the judge ruled to “undo a past wrong.”
“She generally gets the answer right, and that’s coming from someone who didn’t always get the answer he wanted,” Berry said. “Her decision may actually go some distance in bringing about the kind of current, fresh, modern look at how things ought to be.”
While the ruling put Mullen in the national spotlight for the first time, she has made local headlines in her eight years as a circuit judge with decisions that fueled debates over open records laws.
In 2011, she signed a “protective order” forbidding the disclosure of personal information about two Beaufort County paramedics accused in a lawsuit of mishandling a call. In 2012, she ordered the media could not receive video from the dashboard of a stolen Port Royal fire truck involved in a fatal wreck until the suspect’s murder trial began.
Most recently, in July, an appeals court upheld Mullen’s decision to seal documents related to a Hilton Head timeshare company fending off more than 30 lawsuits from unhappy timeshare owners.
A day after her decision in the Stinney case was released, Mullen heard the case of Kalvin Hunt, the former Marine who stole a Port Royal fire truck in 2012, killing a pedestrian in the process, and found him not guilty by reason of insanity.
She had no break after issuing her order on Stinney, and heard hours of bond and plea hearings in what she called the busiest week in Beaufort County court in several years.
“It’s just part of the territory of what we do,” she said, “and no case is more important than another one.”
Gaines, however, said exonerating Stinney was a landmark decision that moves his family one step closer to fighting for monetary compensation.
“It’s important to at least put an official stamp on the unfairness of how this boy was treated and executed behind a faulty criminal justice system, he said. “I applaud the decision. I hope this isn’t just going to be it.”