COLUMBIA, South Carolina (AP) — George Stinney has been dead since 1944, when as a 14-year-old black boy he became the youngest person executed in the United States in the past century, for killing two white girls. Now his supporters are taking the unheard-of step of asking for a new trial.
Stinney’s case brings together two of the longest-running disputes in the American legal system — the death penalty and race.
Stinney was convicted on a shaky confession in a segregated society that wanted revenge for the beating deaths of two girls, ages 11 and 7, according to a lawsuit filed last month on Stinney’s behalf in South Carolina.
He was electrocuted just 84 days after the girls were killed. Newspaper stories reported that witnesses said the straps to keep him in the electric chair didn’t fit around his small frame.
The request for a new trial is largely symbolic, but Stinney’s supporters say they would prefer exoneration to a pardon — which they’ve asked for as well.
The judge may refuse to hear the request for a new trial, since the punishment was already carried out.
“I think it’s a long shot, but I admire the lawyer for trying it,” said Kenneth Gaines, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s law school. He said he’s not aware of any other executed inmates in the state being granted a new trial posthumously.
The two girls were last seen looking for wildflowers in the racially divided mill town of Alcolu. Stinney’s sister, who was 7 at the time, says in her new affidavit for the lawsuit that she and her brother were letting their cow graze when the girls asked them where they could find flowers called maypops. The sister, Amie Ruffner, said her brother told them he didn’t know, and the girls left.
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“It was strange to see them in our area, because white people stayed on their side of Alcolu and we knew our place,” Ruffner wrote.
The girls never came home. They were found the next morning in a water-filled ditch, their heads beaten with a hard object, likely a railroad spike.
The request for a new trial includes sworn statements from two of Stinney’s siblings who say he was with them the entire day the girls were killed.
Notes from Stinney’s confession and most other information used to convict him in a one-day trial have disappeared, along with any transcript of the proceedings. Only a few pages of cryptic, hand-written notes remain, according to the motion.
“Why was George Stinney electrocuted? The state can’t produce any paperwork to justify why he was,” said George Frierson, a local school board member who grew up in Stinney’s hometown hearing stories about the case and decided six years ago to start studying it and pushing for exoneration.
The request for a new trial points out that at 95 pounds (43 kilograms), Stinney likely couldn’t have killed the girls and dragged them to the ditch.
The motion also hints at community rumors of a deathbed confession from a white man several years ago and the possibility Stinney confessed because his family was threatened. But the court papers provide little information, and the lawyers wouldn’t elaborate.
The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office will likely argue the other side of the case. A spokesman said their lawyers had not seen the motion and do not comment on pending cases. A date for a hearing on the matter has not been set.
At 14, Stinney was the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the past 100 years, according to statistics gathered by the Death Penalty Information Center.
Executing teens wasn’t uncommon at that time. Florida put a 16-year-old boy to death for rape in 1944, and Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio and Texas executed 17-year-olds that year.