Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Seeking to clear a 70 year old crime

George Stinney was 14 years old when he was electrocuted by the state of South Carolina after being convicted of murdering two young white girls.

After being arrested, George Stinney was taken from his parents and interrogated without having an attorney present. He was then tried and executed within three months of being arrested.

Last week supporters of George Stinney asked a South Carolina judge to order a new trial so that George Stinney's supporters could clear his name. The judge wasn't asked to rule on whether George was innocent or not, she was asked to decide if his due process rights were violated during the course of the trial.

There is very little, if any, evidence still around. Most of it, including Geoge's confession, was lost a long time ago.

According to newspaper accounts at the time, Geoge Stinney was too small to be strapped into the state's electric chair. The electrodes were too big for his diminutive frame. Yet nobody stood up to say it was wrong for the state to take the life of a teenager.

Supporters say they have new evidence - sworn statements from family members regarding George Swinney's whereabouts on the day in question  and the testimony of a pathologist who disagreed with the original findings.

But is that sufficient for a new trial to be granted?

A motion for new trial is filed upon the return of a guilty verdict from a jury. The motion would allege that the court committed some error of omission or commission that violated the defendant's federal or state constitutional rights or a statutory right. The best way to think of the motion is of a request by the defendant for the judge to correct an error. If the motion is denied - which it almost invariably is - the next step is to appeal the verdict.

Motions for new trial come with very strict guidelines. In Texas a defendant has 30 days from the date of entry of judgment to file a motion for new trial and notice of appeal. Once that 30 day window has closed, the conviction cannot be appealed. At that point the defendant's only option is to file a writ of habeas corpus and have an appellate court order a new trial.

So that would prevent a dilemma as I see it in George Swinney's case. The time for filing a motion for new trial, or for appealing the verdict, is long since passed. That would leave a writ of habeas corpus as the only relief available - but, since George Swinney is dead, there is no body to bring before the court.

I suppose you could argue that his being murdered by the state would constitute an illegal infringement upon his liberty - but is that sufficient to sustain the claim? Had he been alive at the time the writ was filed and died afterward I think you could make that argument. But in this case the petitioner was dead decades before the filing of any motions.

If George Swinney was innocent then the governor should exercise his power to pardon George Swinney. But regardless of whether or not George Swinney murdered those two young girls, there is no excuse for a state to imprison a 14 year-old, strap him to a chair and kill him.

I don't know whether George Swinney's supporters will be able to obtain any relief - but I do know that the very least his family deserves is an apology from the state for the shameful acts that were committed in its name back in 1944.

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