After being convicted and executed in South Carolina, then 14-year-old George Stinney has now been cleared of murder 70 years later. In March of 1944, two young black boys, George Stinney and his older brother Johnnie, were arrested for the brutal murders of two young white girls.
The girls were found in a ditch by railroad tracks, brutally beaten with a tire iron. It was reported that George Stinney and his younger sister were the last two who saw the girls alive. The police released Johnnie and focused their investigation on George. The boy was arrested while his parents were out, and it is reported that he was questioned without a lawyer or his parents present.
There were also conflicting accounts on what George had said in regards to the alleged incident. James Gamble was the son of the sheriff who arrested Stinney. He claimed that in the backseat, Stinney kept saying that he did not mean to kill the girls. However, the boy’s cell mate claimed the boy kept asking why he was being punished for something he did not do.
June 16 of 1944, George was executed, and became the youngest person in modern history to be put to death. Prior to his execution, the boy received a two-hour trial followed by a ten minute jury decision. At the time, 14 was considered to be the age of “criminal responsibility” and he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by electrocution.
During his two-hour trial, there reportedly was no evidence presented in Stinney’s defense. There was also no reported witnesses to provide an alibi for the youth. There was a clear violation of the right of due process for Stinney.
His conviction proved clearly how easy it was in the “Jim Crow South” to railroad a young black boy by an all-white justice system. “Jim Crow laws” that were established in 1877 and were used in force until 1965. The “laws” demanded racial segregation in the South.
Stinney’s case has been a struggle for civil rights activists, prompting action in his hometown recently. A school board member and historian, George Frierson, began to study the case several years ago. New details were being brought forth periodically, including the possibility of an alibi for the youth for the time of the girls murders.
At a hearing in January of this year, family members reportedly insisted that George’s initial confession was coerced. His younger sister, Amie Ruffer, 77, claimed the two were together watching cows when the young girls rode by on their bicycles. The family reportedly made a collective decision to leave their home after George’s execution because they feared for their safety.
Judge Carmen T Mullen ruled that the prosecution in Stinney’s case failed to provide him with his constitutional rights. Mullen also found that with an all-white jury and a court-appointed defense attorney who failed to defend him, the case would be considered “coram nobis”, which is uncommon and only used when a conviction was reached under unfair circumstances, or “mistakes were made.” Judge Mullen cleared George Stinney of murder 70 years after his conviction and execution.
George Stinney was the youngest person to be executed in modern history. His situation in the “Jim Crow South” was not uncommon, but it was largely unfair. Last week, a judge declared the situation a “writ of coram nobis” and threw out his conviction. George Stinney was cleared of murder after 70 long years.
By Kerri Cushna
Photo by Corey Seeman – Flickr License