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70 Years On, Judge Reexamines Black Teen's Conviction


I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Congress is considering legislation that would reinforce voting protections after the Supreme Court stripped the Voting Rights Act of many enforcement powers last session. We'll take a closer look at the proposal in just a moment. But first, a question of justice delayed. Fourteen-year-old George Stinney was executed in the 1944.

The African-American boy is still the youngest person executed in this country during the 20th century. Stinney's trial lasted only a few hours before he was convicted of the murder of two white girls by an all-white jury that deliberated just 10 minutes. Police said the 14-year-old confessed to the crime, but a judge will now decide whether to reopen the case. Stinney's family says his confession was coerced and that he was innocent. Kenneth Gaines is a law professor at the University of South Carolina, and he joins us now to talk about the Stinney case. Professor Gaines, welcome to the program.


HEADLEE: Can we talk in general, what exactly are the stipulations or the circumstances under which some - a court would decide to reopen a case like this?

GAINES: Well, in South Carolina if you find new evidence in a case, you have one year within which to bring that evidence back before the court and make a motion to reopen the case. And that's basically what they've done in this case.

HEADLEE: One year since you've discovered the evidence, not one year since the case was decided, right?

GAINES: No. One year since you discovered the evidence or one year after you should have discovered it through due diligence.

HEADLEE: So what is the new evidence in the George Stinney case?

GAINES: They had some export testimony in terms of the forensics involved. I think they had a forensic psychologist. They had a forensic pathologist talk about the physical evidence. And probably more importantly, they had the two - I think two siblings of George Stinney come in to testify about an alibi that they provided for him. There was also an individual who was in jail at the same time George Stinney was in jail on this charge. And he testified, I think, to the effect that George Stinney had denied any participation in these murders.

HEADLEE: I think that a modern audience would look at this case and think it incredible that this young man was convicted. But at the time, in 1944, the case went through legal channels. It was all legal, correct.

GAINES: Yes. I mean, I think you could technically say yeah, it did go through legal channels. But I think the real question is whether or not George Stinney's constitutional rights were protected during the course of that process.

HEADLEE: The reason I ask that is I am sure that if we go back through the history books, there are dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of cases, in which, perhaps, the defendant's rights were not protected in the way that we today protect them or in, perhaps, we would look back and say there's a possible miscarriage of justice. And we're not going to reopen all of them. So why reopen this one?

GAINES: Well, I think part of it has to do with the age of George Stinney at the time. The fact that race seemed to play a part and the fact that his parents and his relatives all had to leave the same day that he was arrested. So he didn't have any family or any parents there. He did not have adequate legal representation through his court appointed lawyer. These all kind of combine to make this such a unique case. And even though it was 70 years ago, when you look at the physical evidence that we know about, it seems that, you know, there was plenty of reasonable doubt there if it could've been brought to the court's attention.

And it seems that this boy was, kind of, out there on a limb by himself in an environment that just was not conducive to his well-being in terms of being someone charged with murder at that particular time. So I think it just grabs the imagination and the attention of people nowadays, of course, because we don't execute children anymore. And also, we have a different environment.

HEADLEE: I think most people can sympathize with the Stinney family, the relatives and family members of George Stinney, the 14 year old who was executed. We should note, though, that the family of the two girls who were murdered, they are still convinced of George Stinney's guilt. And while we can understand the need to feel that they've gotten justice on the part of George's family, what about the need of the victim's families who feel as though they don't want this case to be reopened and that these wounds don't need to be fresh?

GAINES: Well, I can certainly understand that. But I think that probably the overriding consideration here is that, you know, in this country when you are charged with a serious crime, you have certain rights. And you have, one of the principle rights you have, constitutional rights you have, is that you have the right to a fair trial. And from what we know about this case, it -it would appear that a fair trial was not obtained by George Stinney. That the justice system seemed to fall short. The trial lasted, what, two, three hours. The jury - an all white, male jury deliberated about 10 minutes. The physical evidence was very, very questionable. You had race kind of injected into this thing so it makes you wonder as to whether or not he was tried based on the evidence or tried based on his race.

HEADLEE: So let me ask you again - let me pull back the lens just a little bit and think about it on a broader perspective. What benefit, either legally or civically, do we get from reopening a case like this in which the immediate participants have all passed on?

GAINES: Well, that's always a good question. And I think probably the best answer is that no matter how long it takes, wrongs should be corrected. Although in a practical sense, we can't bring George Stinney back, we can certainly correct the record for at least - and I think that should serve, hopefully, as a deterrent for those who think that they can use the expedience of a day to meet their own ends. That at least, at some point in time, the record will be corrected and justice would be -

HEADLEE: Kenneth Gaines is a law professor at the University of South Carolina. He joined us from Columbia, South Carolina. Thank you so much.

GAINES: Yes, ma'am. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.