By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Attorneys in South Carolina say they have fresh evidence that warrants a new trial in the case of a 14-year-old black teenager put to death nearly 70 years ago for the murders of two white girls.
George Stinney Jr. was the youngest person to be executed in the United States in the last century, and attorneys say the request for another trial so long after a defendant's death is the first of its kind in the state.
No official record of the original court proceedings exists; no trial participants are alive, and no evidence was preserved. The law is unclear on whether any statute of limitations would prevent the case from being reopened.
Despite those obstacles, attorneys for Stinney's family will argue at a hearing on Tuesday that the crime that rocked the small mill town of Alcolu in 1944 deserves another look.
"This is a horrific case," defense lawyer Steven McKenzie said. "Whether justice is 70 years old or one year old or one month old, we think justice needs to be done."
The defense filed its motion requesting a new trial in October based on newly discovered evidence. Since then, new witnesses who could help exonerate Stinney have come forward, including a former cell mate who says the teen told him police forced his confession, attorneys said.
The defense also is relying on old newspaper accounts and a few records in state and county archives to make their case to a judge in Sumter, about 20 miles from the town where Stinney was tried and convicted.
Lawyers said they had determined Stinney was convicted solely on testimony by police who said the teen confessed to killing Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 7. The two girls disappeared on March 23, 1944, after leaving home on their bicycles to look for wildflowers.
The girls rode a distance of about a mile to a railroad track that divided the segregated town, according to the defense's account of the case in court records.
Stinney and his younger sister Amie were sitting on the tracks as their family cow grazed nearby. Stinney's sister recalls the girls asking where they could find flowers before both pairs of children went their separate ways.
Binnicker and Thames never returned home. A search party found their bodies the next morning in a shallow ditch behind a church. Their skulls had been crushed and the bicycles laid on top of them.
After Stinney told someone he had seen the girls along the railroad tracks, he was picked up by police and held for five days before being arrested, said Matthew Burgess, one of the attorneys seeking a new trial.
"Since he became identified as the person who had seen them last before they died, they decided to arrest him," Burgess said.
The teen's family was run out of town, and his siblings never saw him again, Burgess said.
SWIFT COURT PROCEEDINGS
Stinney's lawyers called no witnesses during his daylong trial a month after the murders, according to the current defense team, and a jury of white men deliberated for only 10 minutes before finding him guilty.
Then-governor Olin D. Johnston refused to grant clemency. Stinney, who weighed just 95 pounds, was executed by electrocution in June 1944.
Solicitor Ernest "Chip" Finney III, the prosecutor who will appear at the hearing this week for the state, said the case was the most interesting one ever to cross his desk. But he said he will argue that no information about the original trial exists to show it had been conducted improperly.
"We're talking about procedures and rules 70 years ago that none of us were around to understand," said Finney, son of the first black chief justice on the state's Supreme Court. "There's not going to be enough evidence to open it up."
Relatives of Binnicker, one of the girls killed, do not want the case revisited without good reason, Finney said.
"If there was strong evidence to support the fact that this young man was not involved, they would not want to see the case remain closed," the prosecutor said. "But they don't want to see it opened for the fact that South Carolina has a bad history in these kinds of cases."
Burgess said a member of the search party that found the girls' bodies has offered new testimony that raises questions about where the crime was carried out and whether Stinney was capable of doing it.
Stinney's sister, Amie Ruffner, now in her 70s and living in New Jersey, will testify that Stinney was with her the entire day of the murders and could not have killed the girls, Burgess said.
She was never asked to speak on her brother's behalf at the original trial.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Gunna Dickson)