A South Carolina Circuit Court Judge threw out the 1944 murder conviction of the youngest person to be executed in recent US history on Wednesday.
Judge Carmen Mullen vacated the conviction of George Stinney Jr., who was 14 years old at the time of his death. Mullen said Stinney’s case was marred by “fundamental, constitutional violations of due process.”
Police arrested the 5-foot, 90-pound Stinney after two white girls were found dead in a ditch in Alcolu, South Carolina; a rural town in the segregated South. According to a 2009 affidavit by Stinney’s sister, Amie Ruffner, the girls passed by the Stinney home on the day of their murder, asking where to find a certain kind of wildflower. Ruffner said her brother replied that he didn’t know and the girls continued on their way. Ruffner, now 77, maintains that Stinney then continued to tend to the family’s cow and remained with her during the time of the murders.
Stinney was questioned by police with no guardian or attorney present. The police claimed to have obtained a confession but made no written record. Stinney’s attorney did not challenge the officers’ testimony during the two-hour trial, called no witnesses and made no appeal when the boy was sentenced to death by electric chair.
In 2004, local historian George Frierson came upon an old newspaper article about Stinney and began to research his case. Outraged by what he found, he teamed up with three attorneys and filed a motion for a new trial in 2013.
Judge Mullen ruled on Wednesday that Stinney’s confession was inadmissible because it was likely coerced.
“Methods employed by law enforcement in their questioning of the defendant may have been unduly suggestive, unrestrained, and non-compliant with the standards of criminal procedure as required by the Fifth and 14th amendments,” the judge wrote.
Her ruling came in the form of a writ of coram nobis, which is employed to correct fundamental errors of due process when no other legal remedy exists. Mullen referred to the case as “a truly unfortunate episode in our history”.
Read more about George Stinney’s case here.