Justice is Done: George Stinney Jr.’s 70 Year Old Conviction is Vacated

23EXECUTE2-articleLargeIn 2013, the siblings of electrocuted defendant, George Stinney, Jr., filed a Motion for a New Trial and a Petition for a Writ of Coram NobisBishop Charles Stinney, Catherine Stinney Robinson, and Amie Ruffner retained South Carolina attorneys Matt Burgess, Ray Chandler, Steve McKenzie, and Charleston School of Law Professor, Miller Shealy, to set aside the 70-year-old conviction and execution of George Stinney Jr., in Alcolu, South Carolina in 1944.

Stinney, a fourteen year old minor, was executed in 1944 for the murders of Betty Jane Binnicke and Mary Emma Thames.  Stinney’s siblings argued that his conviction was based on numerous and serious errors that denied Stinney fundamental due process.  According to the Stinney siblings, no other remedy, other than a Writ of Coram Nobis, existed that could remedy the wrongs committed by the state of South Carolina in 1944.

The State of South Carolina disagreed, arguing that no relief should have been granted to Stinney because:

1)  the Stinney siblings lacked standing to bring this petition;

2)  the post conviction relief statute in South Carolina eliminated the use of other writs, such as Coram Nobis;

3)  the doctrine of laches was applicable; and

4)  the South Carolina Supreme Court rather than the Circuit Court was the appropriate jurisdictional venue for the case.

Judge Carmen Mullen  found fundamental constitutional violations of due process occurred in 1944 and vacated the conviction and execution.  According to Mullen, “…law enforcement testified that a confession occurred…” yet “…no written confession exists in the record today.”  She noted that George Stinney was a fourteen year old African-American male who was tried by an all white jury who deliberated for only ten minutes in 1944.  Neither a case file nor a trial transcript from that long ago trial exists today.

Judge Mullen described the Writ of Coram Nobis as a “…holdover of old English law which has been infrequently used in this country.  The writ ‘was available at common law to correct errors of fact’ occurring in proceedings before the King’s Bench….At its inception, the writ was utilized in both civil and criminal cases and there was no time limitation for presenting the facts that affected the ‘validity and regularity of a previous judgment….[T]he writ ‘has had a continuous although limited use…in our states….”    Mullen further noted that “[c]oram nobis relief is appropriate only if no other remedy is available to the applicant.”  Lastly Judge Mullen stated that “[u]ltimately coram nobis is predicated on doing justice.”

After a review of the existing known facts and additional live testimony, Judge Mullen’s legal analysis concluded that George Stinney Jr. was subjected to “fundamental deprivations of due process.”  Miranda, custodial interrogations, coerced confessions, ineffective assistance of counsel, and the execution of a minor were all discussed as were violations of the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments.  Judge Mullen announced that “…I find by a preponderance of the evidence standard, that a violation of Defendant’s procedural due process rights tainted his prosecution…[thus] the Court…grants relief in the form of a writ of coram nobis, ‘not on the grounds that the judgment against him was wrong on the merits, but that the courts have failed in a capital case to discharge their proper functions with due regard to the constitutional safeguards in the administration of justice.”  Because of this, Judge Mullen vacated the “Defendant’s conviction.”

See also New York Times, Post & Courier, The State

About Lisa Smith-Butler

Associate Professor of Law Charleston School of Law 385 Meeting St., Suite 322B Charleston, S.C. 29403 843.377.2144
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