MANNING, S.C. — A judge in South Carolina has opened a hearing to determine whether there will be a new trial for a 14-year-old boy who was executed almost 70 years ago.
George Stinney Jr. was convicted and executed in South Carolina for the murders of two young girls in March 1944 in Alcolu, S.C., just outside of Manning in Clarendon County, S.C., about 60 miles east of Columbia, S.C.
Stinney was black; the girls were white.
For years, there have been questions on whether the trial was fair. Stinney's supporters believe the young man was forced to confess to the murders, and now they want his conviction thrown out.
They say he did not have proper council and wasn't allowed to have his parents around when he was questioned. Many of the records in the case, including the confession, have been lost.
Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen called the situation a tragedy, but said the hearing isn't to determine whether Stinney was innocent or guilty.
"The trial lasted only one day. The lawyer didn't ask any questions on cross-examination which is stipulated to by the state. They called no witnesses, and they offered little or no defense in this case," Mullen in her opening statement to the court.
Experts say the request for a new trial is a longshot because South Carolina law has a high bar to grant new trials. If the judge finds in favor of Stinney, it could open the door for hundreds of other appeals.
But the Stinney case is unique. At 14, he's the youngest person executed in the United States in the last 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 95-pound body and an electrode was too big for his leg.
Stinney's sister, Amie Ruffner, 77, told WLTX-TV on Monday that her brother was innocent.
Ruffner admits she and her brother saw the girls the day they died after they stopped by to talk about finding some flowers.
However, she said the girls were very much alive when they left, and that she and her brother had to tend to the family cow.
It's the first time in 70 years Ruffner is breaking her silence, professing the innocence of her older brother.
Ruffner said she knows her brother is innocent because she never left his side after the girls, Mary Emma Thames, 7, and Betty June Binnicker, 11, asked them where they could find flowers as they tended to a family cow near a set of railroad tracks near their home.
"They said 'could you tell us where we could find some may pops,' Ruffner recalled. "We said 'no,' and they went on about their business."
The girls were later found in a water-logged ditch in a field.
"Two black cars pulled up in front of our house, and they went in our back door and they came out," Ruffner said, recalling the day George and her older brother Johny were put in handcuffs and led from their home. They let Johny go, she said, leaving George to face police questioning.
At the time, both her parents, George Stinney Sr. and Amie Stinney were away from the home, she said.
"(The police) were looking for someone to blame it on, so they used my brother as a scapegoat," Ruffner said.
A coroner's inquest and subsequent grand jury indictment for the murder of Thames led Stinney to face trial for the murder at the age of 14.
Stinney was tried and convicted all in the same day. His sentence was to face an electrocution less than 90 days after the girls' bodies were discovered, despite dozens of letters written to then-South Carolina Gov. Olin Johnston.
Johnston believed Stinney committed the crime to rape one of the girls' dead bodies, though an examination report of the girls' bodies showed something different.
In court Tuesday, Ernest "Chip" Finney III, the prosecutor arguing against him, is the son of South Carolina's first black chief justice. Finney argued there shouldn't be a new trial because the evidence was lost with the passage of time, not destroyed. He said he is shocked and dismayed that the justice system took such little regard for a boy's life, but that was the way justice operated at that time.
"Back in 1944, we should have known better, but we didn't," Finney said.
South Carolina executed 59 people in the 1940s. Fifty of them were black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The state's black population was 43% back then.
Relatives of the girls have recently spoken out as well, saying Stinney was known around town as a bully who threatened to fight or kill people who came too close to the grass where he grazed the family cow.
The hearing will continue Wednesday. It is not clear when the judge will rule.
Contributing: Dakarai Turner, WLTX-TV, Columbia, S.C., and The Associated Press