COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Leaving a judge to decide whether to throw out the conviction of a 14-year-old boy executed in South Carolina in 1944 reminds supporters of George Stinney of how the teen’s fate was also in one man’s hands nearly 70 years ago.
Gov. Olin Johnston could have commuted Stinney’s death sentence to life in prison if he wanted. He had 54 days between the time the Black teen was convicted of killing two White girls in the tiny mill town of Alcolu in Clarendon County and his march to the electric chair with a Bible in his arm.
But Johnston was running for U.S. Senate in 1944, facing a challenger who took a much harder line on segregation. He refused clemency for Stinney, saying he trusted the police, prosecutor and jury. At 14, Stinney was the youngest person executed in this country in the past 100 years, according to statistics gathered by the Death Penalty Information Center.
Stinney’s conviction is being challenged by a lawsuit filed by supporters asking for a new trial, a move unprecedented in South Carolina for someone already put to death. A hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 21.
Solicitor Ernest A. “Chip” Finney III made a surprise visit to a rally calling for justice for Stinney. He said he has no problem with a judge deciding on the lawsuit and will have little to argue against it because the transcript of the one-day trial and almost all of the evidence has disappeared. If the judge throws out Stinney’s conviction, Finney said he will try to recreate the 1944 investigation and then decide what to do with the case.
The judge for the hearing has not been picked. But George Frierson, a local school board member who grew up in Stinney’s hometown hearing stories about the case and has been pushing for the teen’s exoneration for nearly a decade, said he is leery to leave the decision in the hands of one person.
“Look at what happened with the governor after the boy was convicted. Political things can happen when one person is deciding things,” Frierson said.