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Advocates push for retrial to clear name of 14-year-old 'killer' executed in 1944

See "Blog Tips" and second story -this post- highlighting which would bring this case into the realm of a sex offense. i.e., an accused sex offender. See also movie "Carolina Skeletons" If circumstances prove otherwise the case will be removed from blog.

12-1-2013 South Carolina:

The 95-pound boy wore stripes as the sheriffs walked him to the electric chair, sat him on books to prop him up, and electrocuted him in June 1944.

Nearly 70 years after the execution of 14-year-old George Junius Stinney Jr. for the killing of two white girls, advocates have taken the unprecedented step of asking a South Carolina court to grant a new trial to clear his name.

Stinney is often cited as the youngest person executed in this country in the 20th century. For years, family, advocates and lawyers have said that South Carolina put an innocent boy to death.

“We just want what is right,” said Ray Brown, a filmmaker who is writing a script based on Stinney’s story and recently joined efforts to persuade the state to grant a new trial.

The effort stems from the brutal slaying of Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 8, in the spring of 1944. Stinney and his younger sister were the last witnesses known to have seen the girls alive. Police in Alcolu, S.C., arrested Stinney the day the girls were found, and an all-white jury convicted him on the basis of what police described as a confession. Less than three months after the crime, Stinney went to the chair.

"We want them to consider the possibility that he was wrongly convicted and executed for something he did not do," said Brown, who describes the case as a symbol of our history’s deep racial injustices. "You have to correct these kind of things if you ever expect any change."

The request for a new trial is the culmination of a lengthy investigation, started years ago by local historian George Frierson, whose work brought attention to what he calls the barbaric death of a child.

“This was a courthouse lynching,” said Frierson. “I want his name cleared, and I want an apology from the state of South Carolina for putting a child to death.”

Stinney’s execution was legal at the time in South Carolina, where 14 was the age of criminal responsibility. In 2005, the U.S. abolished execution of children under 18.

Brown followed in Frierson’s footsteps, beginning his own investigation, as well as petitioning Gov. Nikki Haley for a pardon. The motion for a new trial marks a shift in strategy to correct what advocates say is a grave wrong.

“After numerous disappointments, blind alleys and dead ends, we believe that we now have sufficient evidence to support a motion to seek judicial review of George Stinney Jr.’s trial,” local attorney Ray E. Chandler said in a statement from Coffey, Chandler and McKenzie. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The quest for a new trial faces several legal hurdles. South Carolina law allows a defendant to ask for a retrial if new evidence is uncovered, but it requires the motion be filed within a year of the discovery. Attorneys in Stinney’s case have based their request on affidavits from two of his siblings who provide an alibi for him at the time.

The filing states that the affidavits taken in 2009 constitute new evidence because the family’s fear at the time prevented them from speaking out.

“I wish I could have come forward much sooner,” said Charles Stinney, George’s brother, who is now in his 80s. “George’s conviction and execution were something my family believed could happen to any of us in the family. Therefore, we made the decision for the safety of the family to leave it be.”

It also attributes the delays in requesting a retrial to efforts to obtain a statement from another witness who eventually refused to come forward, citing fear of the Ku Klux Klan.

“You have to explain why you couldn’t have presented the evidence before — that’s a big problem,” said Kenneth W. Gaines, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. “It’s probably a long shot but I give them credit for trying.”

The effort to win a new trial is a one-shot deal. Such requests are a discretionary matter in the state, Gaines said. Once the decision is made, it cannot be appealed.

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, which would likely be tasked with arguing the state’s case in the event of a retrial, said the office has not received notice of the filing and does not comment on ongoing or potential litigation.

In a 2011 interview with NBC News, Ernest “Chip” Finney, the solicitor for Clarendon County, where the trial took place, said that nearly all evidence and transcripts in the case had either disappeared or been destroyed, meaning it would almost certainly be impossible to prove Stinney’s innocence or guilt by reopening the investigation.

“I would need to have something in order to move the case back to court, something more than just the emotion in the community about it,” Finney said at the time.

The emotion still echoes through Alcolu.

Once the quintessential small company town, Alcolu was split in half. White workers lived on one side of the tracks and black families, including the Stinneys, lived on the other. All lived in cabins owned by the local timber mill, and used coins stamped with an “A” to shop at the company store.

On the day of the murders, two little white girls -- Binnicker and Thames -- crossed those tracks looking for wildflowers. Stinney and his younger sister, Amie, sat on the railroad tracks after school as their cow Lizzie grazed. The girls wheeled their bicycle up to them and asked where they could find maypop flowers, Amie remembered.

"It was strange to see them in our area,” she said in an affidavit filed as part of the case, using her married surname, Ruffner. “Because white people stayed on their side of Alcolu and we knew our place."

News stories from the time said when the girls were reported missing, mill owner B.G. Alderman organized a search party of about 200 people, including black residents. They found the children’s bodies the next day, when, in the early morning light, they followed a trail of small footsteps in damp soil.

The girls had been struck repeatedly in the heads and dumped in a watery ditch. Their bike was smashed and thrown atop their bodies, the flowers they had gathered scattered across the ground.

Stinney and his older brother were arrested that night. His brother was released. George was not. Law enforcement reported that George had immediately confessed to killing the girls with a railroad spike.

In a 2009 affidavit, Ruffner said she was with her brother that day, and he could not have committed the murders.

But his siblings said nothing then, apparently fearing for their lives. The night George was arrested, his father was fired and the Stinneys fled from their company house.

“For my family, Friday March 24, 1944 and the events that followed were our personal 9/11,” said brother Charles Stinney, now in his 80s, said in an affidavit in 2009.

Thirty days after the murders, George Stinney stood trial in Clarendon County. Some 1,500 packed the small courtroom to watch, news reports said.

Prosecutors presented two conflicting statements made by Stinney: one that he had killed the girls in self-defense and the other, that he had chased the girls into the woods and attacked them. No records remain of either confession.

The boy’s court-appointed attorney did not present a defense.

Ten minutes after retiring to deliberate, the jury declared Stinney guilty of murder. Soon after, a judge signed his death sentence.

On June 16, 1944, four months shy of his 15th birthday, the state of South Carolina electrocuted Stinney. Reporters present at his death noted the executioners had difficulty strapping the electrodes to the boy’s small frame. They sat him on a book to prop him up high enough to take his life.

Stinney’s attorney, a tax commissioner with political ambitions but no trial experience, failed to file a notice of appeal, which would have at least delayed the boy’s execution. Several local churches and the NAACP petitioned then-Gov. Olin Johnson to stop the execution. He declined.

The Stinneys were forced to stand by as the state put their son to death.

"My parents were simply helpless to do anything about it,” said Charles Stinney in his affidavit. “They had no money. The law was against them, and they were black in the American South in 1944.” ..Source.. by Hannah Rappleye, Lisa Riordan Seville and Mark Potter, NBC News

New evidence could clear 14-year-old executed by South Carolina


Over 67 years after 14-year-old George Junius Stinney Jr. was put to death by the state of South Carolina, he may soon be cleared of the crime that people familiar with the case say he never could have committed.

A lawyer and an activist both told Raw Story recently that new evidence will show that the black boy could not have possibly murdered two white girls, 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and seven-year-old Mary Emma Thames.

Stinney, the youngest person to receive the death penalty in the last 100 years, was executed on June 16, 1944. At five feet one inch and only 95 pounds, the straps of the electric chair did not fit the boy. His feet could not touch the floor. As he was hit with the first 2,400-volt surge of electricity, the mask covering his face slipped off, “revealing his wide-open, tearful eyes and saliva coming from his mouth,” according to author Joy James.

After two more jolts of electricity, the boy was dead.

Less than three months earlier, Stinney, who had no previous history of violence, had been accused of the crime after he admitted speaking to the girls when they stopped by a field in Alcolu where he was grazing his cow to ask where they could find maypops, a type of flower. Authorities alleged Stinney had used a railroad spike to shatter both of the girls’ heads. The boy was taken into a room with several white officers and within an hour, they said he had confessed. Because there were no Miranda rights in 1944, Stinney was questioned without a lawyer and his parents were not allowed into the room.

No written confession exists, only a few handwritten notes a deputy who was present during the interrogation. They claimed that Stinney had said he killed Mary Emma because he wanted to have sex with Betty June. When Betty June resisted his advances, authorities said, he murdered her too.

Reports said that the officers had offered the boy ice cream for confessing to the crimes.

A mob of about 40 angry white men showed up at the jail, demanding to lynch Stinney, but he had already been moved about 50 miles away to Columbia. Even though Stinney’s father had helped search for the girls when they went missing, he was fired and forced to leave the home provided by Alderman’s Lumber Mill where he worked.

The court appointed 31-year-old Charles Plowden, a tax commissioner, to defend Stinney.

“Plowden had political aspirations, and the trial was a high-wire act for him,” author Mark R. Jones wrote. “His dilemma was how to provide enough defense so that he could not be accused of incompetence, but not be so passionate that he would anger the local whites who may one day vote for him.”

Plowden did not cross-examine any of the prosecution’s witnesses, nor did he call any witnesses for the defense. His entire argument was that Stinney had been too young to be held responsible for the crime, but under South Carolina law at that time, 14 was considered to be age of criminal liability.

The trial was over two hours after it began. A jury of twelve white men deliberated for 10 minutes before convicting Stinney. Plowden later told the judge that there was nothing to appeal, and the Stinney family could not afford to continue the case. A one-sentence notice of appeal would have automatically stayed the case for a year.

While Plowden was preparing a run for state House that Spring, he was not the only one for which the trial held political implications. As elected officials, Sheriff Gamble, Judge Phillip Henry Stoll, Gov. Olin Dewitt Talmudge Johnston, Coroner Charles Moses Thigpen and State Sen. John Grier Binkins, who were all involved in the case, were also beholden to white voters.

State Sen. Binkins assisted the prosecution and Gov. Johnston could have commuted the sentence. Coroner Thigpen had testified that while there was no evidence of rape, he could not rule it out, an inflammatory statement that would have normally been subjected to cross-examination.

Only 83 days after first being accused of the crime, Stinney was put to death.

Attorney Steve McKenzie told Raw Story that he has no doubt this case was an injustice.

“You can’t try a [general session-level] case in two hours,” McKenzie explained. Plowden “would have had an ethical obligation to appeal the case. He would have had an ethical obligation, also, to cross-examine the witnesses but he didn’t do either one of those.”

“The defense attorney obviously didn’t even know what he was — he wasn’t a criminal lawyer, he was just someone that was appointed. He argued that you couldn’t execute George Stinney because he was 14. Well, the age was 14 for an adult at the time. So, he argued actually the wrong argument in his closing statement.”

McKenzie said that the lack of preserved evidence made clearing Stinney’s name difficult, but he hoped that the affidavits of three new witnesses, one of which could provide an alibi, would be enough to re-open the case.

“If we can get the case re-opened, we can go to the judge and say, ‘There wasn’t any reason to convict this child. There was no evidence to present to the jury. There was no transcript. This case needs to be re-opened. This is an injustice that needs to be righted.’”

“I’m pretty optimistic that if we can get the witnesses we need to come forward, we will be successful in court,” he added. “We hopefully have a witness that’s going to say — that’s non-family, non-relative witness — who is going to be able to tie all this in and say that they were basically an alibi witness. They were there with Mr. Stinney and this did not occur.”

Activist George Frierson, who is also from Alcolu, said that he had come across the case about five and a half years ago while doing black historical research and has been fascinated ever since.

“The fact that he was 14 just astounds me,” Frierson told Raw Story. “I’m a military veteran and I always tell people that the two things that we protect is our elders and our children. And to have this happen to a 14-year-old child, it was appalling.”

“I was born in Alcolu, where he was living at the time of this incident, and it always has been talked about in the community. In fact, there has been a person that has been named as being the culprit, who is now deceased. And it was said by the family that there was a deathbed confession.”

He added that the rumored culprit had come from a well-known, prominent white family. Another member of that same family had served on the coroner’s inquest jury which recommend that Stinney be prosecuted.

Frierson hopes that clearing Stinney’s name would make people think twice in other death penalty cases like that of Troy Davis, who was recently executed by the state of Georgia. Since his conviction, seven of the nine people who testified against him had recanted or changed their testimonies.

“I have a problem with the death penalty because it is irreversible,” Frierson said. “You find out later that someone actually was innocent then you go and say we’re going to settle a wrongful death lawsuit. What does that do for the victim? Nothing. It doesn’t do anything for them.”

“I think it will make people look a little more closely. Just like the seven people that recanted in the Troy Davis case… After seven people recanted a story out of nine, if that’s not reasonable doubt, I don’t know what is. And yet, the state of Georgia decided to go through with the execution.”

If Stinney’s name is cleared, it won’t be the first time the state of South Carolina has learned that the it put the wrong person to death.

In 2009, the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services unanimously pardoned Thomas Griffin and Meeks Griffin for the 1913 murder of John Q. Lewis, a former Confederate Army veteran.

“It’s good for the community,” radio show host Tom Joyner, who had two great uncles that were also executed for the crime, told CNN. “It’s good for the nation. Anytime that you can repair racism in this country is a step forward.” ..Source.. by David Edwards

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