ALCOLU, S.C. — A few miles off I-95, past acres of brown-and-white fields where blackbirds circle overhead, this small town in the heart of Deep South cotton country isn't known for much. It has a post office and a few churches, some abandoned houses and some nicer ones, ramshackle trailers and cotton fields.
After church on a recent Sunday there, George Frierson was scuffing a shiny black dress shoe across some gravel at a railroad crossing. Back when he was a kid the rail line split this tiny, rural town along racial lines. But for blacks like him growing up in Alcolu, the train tracks signified something even more sinister than segregation.
“Where they actually found the girls' bodies, they say it was just along the tracks,” he said.
Frierson is a local historian and community activist who works at the nearby Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church and serves on the county school board. The general area he was marking with his shoe was the scene of a double murder in 1944. Two young white girls out picking flowers had their skulls bashed in and were found in a nearby water-filled ditch.
Police said their killer used a railroad spike, and for the culprit they fingered a 14-year-old black boy named George Stinney Jr., whom a witness said had been seen talking to the girls earlier that day. The sheriff's deputies who snatched Stinney up said he confessed to the crime when they took him in for questioning. The boy's parents, who lived in a company house, were run out of town the day he was arrested and didn't see their son until his trial.
An all-white jury sentenced the teenager to death after 10 minutes of deliberation. The trial lasted two and a half hours in the Clarendon County courthouse where a local tax commissioner preparing for a State House run in an election year was appointed to represent him. No witnesses spoke in his defense. That summer, fewer than 90 days after the girls were killed, the State of South Carolina shocked George Stinney Jr. to death in an electric chair that could barely fit his small frame. He was the youngest person executed in 20th century America.
These days, not everyone who lives in the area has heard the story of George Stinney Jr. About four years ago, a white local attorney named Steve McKenzie read a newspaper account about the execution.
“I practiced law in Clarendon County for 20 years and did not even realize this case even existed,” he says. “This is a well-known case in the black community, but in the white community I'd never even heard of it. I grew up in this area … and was just, as a lawyer, was just appalled at the lack of process that was given to George Stinney.”
In October 2013, McKenzie asked the county solicitor ― the state's equivalent of a district attorney ― to give Stinney a new trial 70 years after the boy's death. A county judge could grant or dismiss the motion, but it's likely to wind up a merely symbolic move.
“It's not the strongest case in the world,” McKenzie admits.
The Palmetto State has strict rules about introducing new evidence after a trial, and obviously the death sentence has already been carried out. In 2009, Aime L. Stinney told The Sumter Item, a local newspaper, that she and her brother did interact with the girls the day they disappeared, according to reporter Robert Baker. But the new legal motion comes with sworn statements from Aime and her other brother Charles that say they were with Stinney the entire day of the murders and it would have been impossible for him to have done it.
"George's conviction and execution was something my family believed could happen to any of us in the family,” Charles Stinney wrote in his statement. “Therefore, we made a decision for the safety of the family to leave it be.”
No written record of a confession has even been produced, according to McKenzie and others who have researched the case, and nearly all the transcripts, files and records related to the prosecution have vanished except for some handwritten notes.
Part of the new petition to re-open the case also hinges on that alleged confession between a black teenager, alone in a room with multiple white sheriff's deputies in the Deep South, pre-Miranda rights era of 1944.
“The only thing that we are aware of is an oral confession,” McKenzie says. “To me, any time you put a 14-year-old in that situation and you put it in that era, then the chances of this confession either being coerced or the person being manipulated by the people who were actually doing the interrogation would be very, very high. … You're talking about white men in the Jim Crow South with a 14-year-old boy. It wasn't even close to being an even playing field.”