The prosecutor who this week lost a case involving the 1944 execution of a 14-year-old boy said Thursday he is undecided about whether to appeal a state judge’s unprecedented ruling vacating the boy’s conviction.
But a criminal law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law said there can be great value in an appeal by 3rd Circuit Solicitor Ernest “Chip” Finney III – especially if the S.C. Supreme Court were to uphold the ruling that the young black teen was wrongly tried and executed in connection with the bludgeoning deaths of two white girls.
“Legally, the impact is very limited because he was executed so long ago,” said Seth Stoughton, who teaches criminal law and who is a former police officer. “Symbolically, however, there could be a great deal of power in having that message come from the State Supreme Court rather than a trial court.”
“A state supreme court speaks with more authority than a trial court. It’s valuable when a higher authority makes an effort to acknowledge mistakes – even mistakes that happened a long time ago. It sends a stronger message that as a state, a judicial system, that we are interested in getting it right and learning from our past mistakes,” Stoughton said.
On Wednesday, Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen of Beaufort vacated the 1944 murder conviction and execution sentence of George Stinney.
Mullen made no finding of whether Stinney was guilty or innocent in the deaths of the girls in Clarendon County in 1944, when forced segregation and intimidation of blacks were rampant across South Carolina. But she ruled the prosecution had violated Stinney’s constitutional rights in numerous ways.
Mullen, 46, has served as a circuit court judge since 2006. A former public defender, she is one of approximately 50 circuit judges in South Carolina and heard the 3rd Circuit case.
Finney said Thursday he has not read the ruling yet.
“I just got handed the 28-page order, and I’m going to look over it this weekend,” Finney said Thursday. “I’m going to review it very carefully and weigh my options, and we’ll know within 10 days what we are going to do.”
Finney praised Mullen – who took nearly a year to write her 28-page opinion – for “doing a fine job of deliberating over some very novel issues that had to be addressed. As I understand it, this is not an exoneration of the young man, but it is a statement that due process was not complied with in the way it should have been.”
Stoughton said that if Finney agrees with Mullen’s decision, he can still file an appeal and make it a “confession of error” motion whereby the solicitor asks the Supreme Court to agree with the other side.
“He can say, ‘The earlier conviction was in error, and on behalf of the state, we screwed up, and I confess error.’ There’s a lot of value in a prosecutor saying, ‘We made mistakes.’”
Asked if he would appeal if he agreed with Mullen’s ruling, Finney said, “I don’t want to speculate on that. Let me review it first.”
As 3rd Circuit Solicitor based in Sumter, Finney is the heir to that circuit’s solicitor in 1944, Frank McLeod. The four-county circuit also includes Lee, Sumter and Williamsburg counties.
Mullen found numerous errors: Stinney’s confession was likely coerced, the all-white jury was not a jury of his peers and his court-appointed lawyer did little or nothing to defend him. There was no appeal of the case. Today, juveniles cannot be executed. Less than two months passed between trial and execution.
Technically, Stinney was tried, convicted and executed for the killing of Betty June Binnicker, 11. She had been found bludgeoned to death in a ditch along with her cousin, Mary Emma Thames, 7, near Stinney’s house.