It is perhaps fitting that on the week of MLK Day, a group of activists is fighting to clear the name of an African-American boy executed nearly 70 years ago after being hastily convicted of murder. His actual guilt or innocence remains a matter of debate. But the way in which he was charged, convicted and sentenced highlights the deeply entrenched racism in America’s not-too-distant past (and perhaps its present).
In 1944, two young girls were murdered in a small South Carolina town. They were 11 and 7 years old, respectively. Local law enforcement officers quickly named their prime (and perhaps only) suspect: a 14-year-old African-American boy named George Stinney, Jr. He was interrogated without a lawyer after being pulled away from his parents.
The evidence against him would be considered scant in most courtrooms today. His alleged confession, which was central to his conviction, is also now in doubt. Nonetheless, his trial and subsequent conviction started and ended the same day. Not long after that, he was executed by electrocution.
His mug shots show just how young George was. And accounts of his execution reveal that at a mere 95 pounds, he was too small for the adult-sized electric chair that was used to kill him. George remains the youngest person executed in the United States within the last century.
Today, supporters of George Stinney, Jr. argued in front of a judge that the long-deceased boy should be given a new trial; which would essentially be a symbolic gesture at this point. According to news reports, it seems unlikely that the motion for a new trial will be granted. If that’s the case, his supporters say they’ll ask for a pardon from the state instead.
The transcript of the trial has been lost to history, as has most of the evidence presented. There may be no way to determine George’s guilt or innocence at this point. However, the way in which his case was handled represents a clear miscarriage of justice and due process. Until or unless America learns from these mistakes, our justice system is bound to repeat them.
Source: TIME, "New Trial Sought for Boy, 14, Executed in 1944," Jeffrey Collins, Jan. 21, 2014