Death penalty foes are making much of some unconventional legal process in South Carolina related to an execution seventy years ago. The 1944 conviction of 14-year old George Stinney was set aside by a South Carolina Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen. Stinney was convicted and executed for the murder of two girls in 1944. Stinney is the youngest person executed in the United States.
Death penalty foes are forever in search of the innocent who was executed. It helps their narrative that the death penalty is inherently flawed. In the case of George Stinney, it helps their narrative that the death penalty is inherently flawed, and racist.
It is the media coverage, however, on the South Carolina ruling that is flawed. Nearly all of it presents the court’s decision as if it reviewed the evidence and “exonerated” Stinney of the murder. The court did no such thing. This blog has a more detailed description of the procedural posture of the case.
In short, the movants were seeking to have Stinney’s guilty verdict vacated because the police didn’t use procedures which became constitutional minimums decades after the 1944 trial. For example, the Supreme Court recently ruled that minors cannot be executed. Thus, Stinney’s 1944 execution would have been invalid under 2014 procedural rules.
The movants filed a Writ of Coram Nobis. This writ seeks merely to set aside the conviction, not exonerate the defendant.
That pesky fact doesn’t stop blogs like Wonkette from blasting the headline: Judge Exonerates 14-Year-Old Black Boy 70 Years Later. Execution Harder To Reverse.
Wonkette is in familiar territory being wrong. Stinney was not exonerated. He was not found “innocent.”
These errors help fuel a favorite left wing narrative, one heard in places like Ferguson: the criminal justice system is illegitimate and structurally racist. Stinney, they would have readers believe, was an innocent child framed for the murder of white females by a racist southern system.
No articles I’ve seen make mention of the fact that Stinney was heard threatening to kill girls before girls were, indeed, killed. One eyewitness also saw Stinney talking to the victims in the same place he made threats to kill other girls. (Watch the video of an eyewitness who heard Stinney’s threat to kill girls.) This inconvenient fact provides strong circumstantial evidence of murderous intent. Moreover, few of the articles mention that Stinney made three separate confessions to the murder. Sure, crow about Gideon all you want. But Gideon only became the law 18 years after Stinney was convicted. Nearly every criminal conviction in the history of the United States before 1962 is subject to being vacated under this theory.
When you learn that the evidence of Stinney’s threats and his three confessions were introduced as evidence at trial, the conviction doesn’t seem quite so outlandish. The execution of a 14-year old does not conform to modern jurisprudential standards, but the law doesn’t operate to review convictions 50, 70, 100 years in the past using modern standards.
Perhaps South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson will appeal. I doubt the South Carolina Supreme Court wants to see a parade of litigants seeking to reverse the criminal convictions of thousands of relatives long dead.