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Court considers new trial in 1944 case

Black teen was youngest ever executed in US

Amie Ruffner testified Tuesday at a hearing seeking a new trial for her older brother, who was executed in 1944.

RANDALL HILL/REUTERS

Amie Ruffner testified Tuesday at a hearing seeking a new trial for her older brother, who was executed in 1944.

SUMTER, S.C. — The judge, prosecutor, and defense lawyers all agree that justice, at least by today’s standards, wasn’t carried out 70 years ago when a 14-year-old black boy was sent to the electric chair for killing two white girls.

But figuring out exactly what happened in March 1944 may be difficult, they said during the first day of a hearing into whether a new trial should be ordered in the case of George Stinney. People who attended the original trial have died and most of the evidence, including a transcript of the trial and Stinney’s confession, has disappeared.

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Stinney was found guilty of killing 11-year-old Betty Binnicker and 7-year-old Mary Emma Thames just over a month after their bodies were found beaten on the head and left in a water-filled ditch. The original trial lasted less than a day in the tiny Southern mill town of Alcolu, which was separated, as most were in those days, by race. His lawyers argued his conviction was tainted by racism and scant evidence.

Lawyers working on behalf of Stinney’s family have gathered new evidence, including sworn statements from relatives accounting for his whereabouts the day the girls were killed and from a pathologist disputing the autopsy findings.

But that evidence depends mostly on the reliability of human memory. Stinney’s younger sister, who was 7 at the time, testified Tuesday that she hid in a chicken coop when several white men in uniforms arrived at their home in strange-looking cars. She vividly recalled seeing her brother’s burned body in a casket after his electrocution and the unmarked grave he was buried in. But on cross examination, Amie Ruffner struggled to remember details of a sworn statement she gave in 2009.

George Stinney was executed in South Carolina at age 14, after being convicted in the deaths of two white girls.

‘‘If you can’t remember what you wrote down in 2009, why should we believe that you can believe something that happened in 1944?’’ prosecutor Ernest Finney III said.

Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen said her task isn’t deciding whether Stinney was guilty or innocent, but whether he got a fair trial at the time.

‘Back in 1944, we should have known better, but we didn’t.’

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If Mullen rules in favor of granting a new trial, it could open the door for hundreds of other appeals.

But the Stinney case is unique. At 14, he was the youngest person executed in the United States in the past 100 years. Even in 1944, there was an outcry over putting someone so young in the electric chair. Newspaper accounts from the time said the straps in the chair didn’t fit around his 95-pound body and an electrode was too big for his leg.

Mullen acknowledged how the case was unusual.

‘‘No one here can justify a 14-year-old child being charged, tried, convicted, and executed in some 80 days,’’ she said.

In 1944, Stinney was likely the only black in the courtroom. On Tuesday, the courtroom was packed with African-American supporters, and the prosecutor arguing against a new trial is the son of South Carolina’s first black chief justice. Finney contended there shouldn’t be a new trial because the evidence was lost over time. He said he is shocked and dismayed that the justice system had such little regard for a boy’s life, but that was the way justice operated at that time.

‘‘Back in 1944, we should have known better, but we didn’t,’’ Finney said.

South Carolina executed 59 people in the 1940s. Fifty of them were black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The state’s black population was 43 percent back then. It is about 28 percent today.

Newspaper stories about Stinney’s trial offer few details about whether any evidence was introduced beyond the teen’s confession and an autopsy report.

Terri Evans, a cousin of Thames born years after she died, said it’s a shame this hearing wasn’t held earlier. Her uncle was at the 1944 trial and watched Stinney’s execution. He told her he was convinced of the teen’s guilt and felt terrible for his family, too.

The hearing will continue Wednesday.

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