Calling it a “great and fundamental injustice,” a South Carolina judge vacated the 1944 murder conviction of 14-year-old George J. Stinney Jr., the youngest person executed in the United States in the last century.
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.
“I am not aware of any case where someone who was convicted has had the trial conviction and sentence vacated after they’d been executed,” said Miller W. Shealy Jr., a professor at the Charleston School of Law and one of the lawyers who worked on behalf of the Stinney family to have the conviction thrown out.
Ernest A. Finney III, the solicitor who had opposed the request on the state’s behalf — and a son of the first black State Supreme Court justice since Reconstruction — had argued in a two-day hearing in January that the conviction was valid under the legal system in place at the time. He did not return calls for comment.