Exonerated, But Executed

by Michelle Dean

In the midst of the hustle and bustle of yesterday’s Cuba and Sony-centric news, one of America’s ghosts shimmered into view in the background. It was the spirit of a black fourteen-year-old named George Stinney. He was executed in 1944 for the murder of two young white girls in Alcolu, South Carolina. The only evidence of his guilt was a confession he said he’d been coerced into making. There was no physical evidence, but he became the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century anyway.

On a motion from the family, a judge just recently vacated his conviction:

Judge Carmen T. Mullen of Circuit Court did not rule that the conviction of Mr. Stinney for the murder of two white girls in the town of Alcolu was wrong on the merits. She did find, however, that the prosecution had failed in numerous ways to safeguard the constitutional rights of Mr. Stinney, who was black, from the time he was taken into custody until his death by electrocution.

The all-white jury could not be considered a jury of the teenager’s peers, Judge Mullen ruled, and his court-appointed attorney did “little to nothing” to defend him. His confession was most likely coerced and unreliable, she added, “due to the power differential between his position as a 14-year-old black male apprehended and questioned by white, uniformed law enforcement in a small, segregated mill town in South Carolina.”

The order was a rare application of coram nobis, a legal remedy that can be used only when a conviction was based on an error of fact or unfairly obtained in a fundamental way and when all other remedies have been exhausted.

Just to compound the awful picture of the American criminal justice system this provides, allow me to add that the time from crime to Stinney’s execution was unusually swift, a mere 83 days.

Here’s the thing: I know it’s tempting to tuck this case away in a drawer. I know it’s tempting to classify it as a product of its time and place, to say that Jim Crow laws are over, that we don’t allow executions of minors, that this is an America of the past. Problem is, the America of the present stands atop the America that convicted Stinney on the flimsiest grounds. When people qualifiedly sing the praises of the American justice system, they are singing the praises of the system that killed him in 83 days. And they are being a bit blasé about how it took more than a half-century for that same system to say they regretted doing it.