In a courtroom in Sumter, S. C., a local judge is deciding whether an apparent miscarriage of justice almost 70-years-old will be corrected. Advocates for George Stinney Jr. are seeking a new trial after the 14-year-old became the youngest person to be executed in the U.S. in the past century, following his 1944 conviction for killing two young white girls.
Advocates and family members for Stinney said the court rushed to judgment in 1944 and they are pushing for a new trial—even though there is no legal precedent for it and the family members of the little girls are against it.
At the start of the hearing, Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen cautioned the crowded courtroom that the purpose of the hearing was to determine whether Stinney received a fair trial, not whether he was innocent or guilty.
“What can I do? What can I rectify?” Mullen said at the beginning of the hearing. “And even if we did retry Mr. Stinney, what would be the result? Again, none of us have the power to bring that 14-year-old child back.”
The court heard from three of Stinney’s surviving siblings, who said Stinney spent the day with his family at the time Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 7, vanished on March 23, 1944, in the small mill town of Alcolu, S.C.
“They said he killed those girls and I knew that was a lie,” sister Amie Ruffner testified.
State prosecutor Ernest “Chip” Finney III—who is the son of South Carolina’s first Black chief justice—argued there shouldn’t be a new trial because the evidence was lost with the passage of time. But Finney did say he is shocked and dismayed that the justice system had such little regard for a boy’s life.
“Back in 1944, we should have known better, but we didn’t,” Finney said. “The evidence here is too speculative and the record too uncertain for the motion to succeed.”
Frankie Dyches, the niece of Betty June Binnicker, said to NBC News that justice has already been served with Stinney’s conviction and there is no need to reopen the case.
When police arrested Stinney on the day the girls were found dead, they alleged that he confessed to killing the girls with a railroad spike. The trial lasted less than three hours, with the all-white jury deliberating just 10 minutes before convicting him.
Less than three months later, Stinney was executed in the electric chair.
Though nearly all the evidence, including Stinney’s confession, has vanished, lawyers working on behalf of Stinney’s family have gathered new evidence, including sworn statements from his relatives accounting for his whereabouts the day the girls were killed and from a pathologist disputing the autopsy findings.
Defense attorneys also said Stinney’s former cellmate, Wilford Hunter, issued a statement saying Stinney denied committing the crime.
“I didn’t, didn’t do it,’ ” Hunter recalled Stinney telling him. “He said, ‘Why would they kill me for something I didn’t do?’ ”
Finney challenged the memories of Stinney’s family members. When Amie Ruffner, who was 7 at the time, testified Tuesday about how she hid in a chicken coop when several white men in uniforms arrived at their home in strange-looking cars and how she vividly remembered seeing her brother’s burned body in a casket after his electrocution, Finney went after her.
On cross examination, she struggled to remember details of a 2009 sworn statement she gave.
“If you can’t remember what you wrote down in 2009, why should we believe that you can believe something that happened in 1944?” Finney said.
An agitated Ruffner raised her voice and answered, “Because I was alive in 1944!”
Legal experts say if Mullen finds in favor of Stinney, it could open the door for hundreds of other appeals.
Relatives of the slain girls have recently said Stinney was known around town as a bully who threatened to fight or kill people who came too close to the grass where he grazed the family cow.