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Hearings mull '44 US death sentence case

SUMTER, South Carolina--The judge, prosecutor and defense lawyers all agree that justice, at least by today's U.S. standards, wasn't carried out 70 years ago when a 14-year-old black boy was sent to the electric chair for killing two white girls.

But figuring out exactly what happened in March 1944 may be elusive, they said during the first day of a hearing into whether the boy, George Stinney, should get a new trial. People who attended the original trial have died and most of the evidence, including a transcript of the trial, has disappeared.

Stinney was found guilty of killing 11-year-old Betty Binnicker and 7-year-old Mary Emma Thames just over a month after their bodies were found beaten in the head and left in a water-filled ditch. The trial lasted less than a day in the tiny Southern mill town of Alcolu, separated, as most were in those days, by race. His lawyers argued his conviction was tainted by racism and scant evidence in the era of Jim Crow laws that instituted segregation in much of the U.S. South.

Stinney is the youngest person executed in the United States in the past 100 years. Even in 1944, there was an outcry over putting someone so young in the electric chair. Newspaper accounts said the straps in the chair didn't fit around his 43-kilogram body and an electrode was too big for his leg.

Nearly all the evidence, including Stinney's confession, has vanished. Lawyers working on behalf of Stinney's family have gathered new evidence, including sworn statements from his relatives accounting for his whereabouts the day the girls were killed and from a pathologist disputing the autopsy findings.

But that evidence depends mostly on the unreliability of the human memory. Stinney's younger sister, who was seven at the time, testified Tuesday about how she hid in a chicken coop when several white men in uniforms arrived at their home in strange-looking cars. She vividly remembered seeing her brother's burned body in a casket after his electrocution and the unmarked grave he was buried in. But on cross examination, Amie Ruffner struggled to remember details of a 2009 sworn statement she gave.

“If you can't remember what you wrote down in 2009, why should we believe that you can believe something that happened in 1944?” prosecutor Ernest “Chip” Finney III said.

Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen said her task isn't deciding whether Stinney is guilty or innocent, but whether he got a fair trial at the time.

“What can I do? What can I rectify?” Mullen said at the beginning of the hearing. “And even if we did retry, Mr. Stinney, what would be the result? Again, none of us have the power to bring that 14-year-old child back.”

If Mullen finds in favor of Stinney, it could open the door for hundreds of other appeals. But she acknowledged how the case was unusual.

“No one here can justify a 14-year-old child being charged, tried, convicted and executed in some 80 days,” she said.

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