Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Nothing Good": Jim Crow-Era South Carolina and the George Stinney, Jr. Case

In the past, the LHB has reported on Jim-Crow-era cold cases and efforts in Alabama and other places to rectify injustices from the era of segregation. Add the George J. Stinney, Jr. case to the list.  In 1944, the state of South Carolina executed George J. Stinney, Jr. a fourteen-year-old black boy, for the murder of two white girls, ages seven and eleven.  A jury had convicted Stinney after a short trial in Clarenden County (of Brown v. Board fame) that turned on the boy's reputed confession. A child psychologist now calls that confession "compliant, coerced, and false."
Courtesy of the (SC) State
George Stinney, Jr. and Sister (left)
Chip Finney, 3rd Cir. (SC) Solicitor (right) 
Mere months after the crime, South Carolina electrocuted Stinney, making the fourteen-year-old the youngest person executed in the twentieth century United States. Seventy years later, Stinney's family is seeking a new trial or a voided verdict to clear his name. The history of the state of South Carolina during the era of segregation and how prevailing social attitudes may have influenced the central actors in the case--including Stinney, prosecutors, and police officers--are vital to the legal drama now unfolding in the courtroom. One of Stinney's sisters succinctly captured a slice of the black experience when asked "what she recalled of her life" then. Her response: "nothing good."  The Stinney family left the Deep South for Newark after her brother's death "shattered her parents."  The effort of the Stinney family to clear George, Jr.'s name is opposed by the state, which is represented by Chip Finney, pictured above right, the Third Circuit Solicitor; the state argues that the evidence is too speculative to unsettle the verdict. In addition, the niece of one of the victims argues that the boy's confession and conviction are valid under the laws of 1944.

Coverage of the Stinney saga can be found in The State (SC) and in the N.Y. Times. The case also has spawned an award-winning, true-crime novel, Carolina Skeletons, by David Stout, formerly of the N.Y. Times. For a thoughtful, multi-part retrospective about his discovery of Stinney and the local context in which the crime, investigation, and execution occurred, see Stout's discussions here, here, here, and here. Here is an excerpt from Part 1 of the series:

As a journalist, I’d always been drawn to criminal justice issues, especially capital punishment. ... I’ve always favored the death penalty for truly horrible crimes. But should the state put a killer to death if he isn’t old enough to live on his own, or vote, or buy a beer?  ...  
Quickly, probably too quickly, I formed an opinion. Since George Stinney was black, and the little girls were white, he was doomed from the start. He was lucky to have died from the electric current rather than strangling at the end of a rope thrown over a tree limb by a lynch mob in the bigoted, rebel-haunted South Carolina of 1944.