At just 14 George Stinney Jr. was so small executioners trying to strap him into the electric chair had to put a phone book under him. Once the chair was turned on the death mask — which was too big for his adolescent face — slipped from the boy's head, revealing tears running down his face. This was in South Carolina in June 1944.
Today, a judge ruled that Stinney was wrongly executed after finding his original conviction was "based on numerous and serious errors and omissions denying Stinney fundamental due process." Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen ruled that there were multiple instances of violations of the boy's constitutional right to due process in what she called a "great injustice".
It was a double murder that shook the heavily segregated mill town of Alcolu, South Carolina. In March 1944 two white girls, aged 7 and 11, who went looking for wild flowers were found in a ditch on the black side of town with their skulls crushed in. African American Stinney, who had reportedly spoken to the girls the day before, quickly became the prime suspect.
Interviewed by police, without a lawyer or his parents present, Stinney admitted the murders in what his supporters say was a coerced confession.
The process that followed saw the teenager arrested, tried and executed within three months with no chance to appeal. The usually lengthy process of jury selection, trial and sentencing all occurred in less than a day. A jury of 12 white men took less than 15 minutes to find Stinney guilty, with the judge condemning him to death by electric chair the same day.
Advocates for Stinney say the case is indicative of how young black men in the midst of Jim Crow America were swept through an almost exclusively white legal system. Judge Mullen noted the "inflamed public sentiment"regarding the crime in the local community. Such was the anger among the white community that the teenager's family was forced to flee the town.
As Stinney's lawyer failed to request a change of location the boy was tried — without his family — in the local court with a baying mob outside the doors. Inside the court the odds were further stacked against Stinney as his hapless defense council "presented little to no evidence and cross examined few to no witnesses"in front of an all-white jury selected from the local population.
Clive Stafford Smith, director of the Reprieve organization and a capital punishment defense attorney in the US for more than 30 years, told VICE News: "Sadly, so many of the problems with the dreadful wrong conviction of George Stinney, an innocent young boy, persist in death penalty systems in the US and around the world.
Stafford Smith continued: "Forced 'confessions' are often extracted under torture, racism, prosecutorial misconduct —the list of problems in capital cases is endless and means the risk of an innocent person being executed is terrifyingly high. Poor George Stinney cannot get his life back, but there are thousands of people languishing on death row whose lives could be saved. From the US to Pakistan, the death penalty must be abolished."