COLUMBIA, S.C. — Leaving a judge to decide whether to throw out the conviction of a 14-year-old boy executed in South Carolina in 1944 reminds supporters of George Stinney of how the teen's fate was also in one man's hands nearly 70 years ago.
Gov. Olin Johnston could have commuted Stinney's death sentence to life in prison if he wanted. He had 54 days between the time the black teen was convicted of killing two white girls in the tiny mill town of Alcolu in Clarendon County and his march to the electric chair with a Bible in his arm.
But Johnston was running for U.S. Senate in 1944, facing a challenger who took a much harder line on segregation. He refused clemency for Stinney, saying he trusted the police, prosecutor and jury. At 14, Stinney was the youngest person executed in this country in the past 100 years, according to statistics gathered by the Death Penalty Information Center.
Stinney's conviction is being challenged by a lawsuit filed by supporters asking for a new trial, a move unprecedented in South Carolina for someone already put to death. A hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 21.
Solicitor Ernest A. "Chip" Finney III made a surprise visit to a rally calling for justice for Stinney. He said he has no problem with a judge deciding on the lawsuit and will have little to argue against it because the transcript of the one-day trial and almost all of the evidence has disappeared. If the judge throws out Stinney's conviction, Finney said he will try to recreate the 1944 investigation and then decide what to do with the case.
The judge for the hearing has not been picked. But George Frierson, a local school board member who grew up in Stinney's hometown hearing stories about the case and has been pushing for the teen's exoneration for nearly a decade, said he is leery to leave the decision in the hands of one person.
"Look at what happened with the governor after the boy was convicted. Political things can happen when one person is deciding things," Frierson said.
Johnston received hundreds of telegrams and letters as Stinney waited on death row. Many of them asked him to have mercy on Stinney because he was so young. His age captivated writers, and Stinney's story was in newspapers across the country before his death.
Others letters used crude language and suggested Stinney was part of a larger problem of lawless black men that preyed on white women.
Johnston sent the same note back, over and over again. It acknowledged Stinney's age, but added that he brutally murdered the girls. Johnston's note inaccurately said Stinney killed the younger girl to rape the older girl and violated the older girl after she was dead. Stinney was not tried for rape.
"One other thing, the colored people of Alcolu would have lynched this boy themselves had it not been for the protection of the officers," Johnston's letter concluded.
The messages were preserved by the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. They offer a glimpse into a society struggling with discrimination as black soldiers fought in World War II and with fears of crime relevant to anyone who follows the news today.
A woman who signed her letter Mrs. Winnie Ferguson told the governor she went to work at her job in Greenville at 11 p.m. and heard that two-thirds of the murders and other crimes are committed by youths, with sex as the chief motive. "Right here in this town where I live it seems the negroes are becoming more belligerent," she wrote.
And there was Dr. W.S. Lynch from Lake City, who wrote the governor in his medical opinion Stinney was part of a class of criminals that were sexual perverts and no punishment could change that. "Our state does not need such criminals, and will be far better off without them," he said.
The people asking for clemency for Stinney were a diverse group. There was a Boy Scout leader who said his 25 years around young boys convinced him teens could not be fairly judged by adult standards. About 100 telegrams from labor unions came into Johnston's office, asking him to show mercy.
With the United States in the middle of World War II, some asked Johnston to hold up American ideas of fairness and justice. Some said executing a 14-year-old boy sounded like something Hitler would do. Several soldiers wrote to Johnston. One of them as H.L. Bailey, whose note was on U.S. Army stationary and said it was written "on behalf of the boys in my outfit."
"I'm a white Southern boy, but I've been in the Army long enough to know that the negro boys are losing their lives for this country and I surely think they should have the same treatment as we whites are getting," he wrote. "If not, what in the world are they fighting for?"
Some of the most vitriolic notes to Johnston were written anonymously with racial slurs. Some compared Stinney to an animal or a little devil. One handwritten note signed "Your People" The letter reminded the governor that two white girls were dead and it would be a shame if their black killer got a life sentence that only turned out to be a few years with a pardon, leaving him to do the same thing again.
"Yes he should die. We have children, and that's the way we feel," the letter went. "We are ashamed of our (whites) who are sticking up for the negroes and we are proud of you."
C.S. Prescott of Sumter told the governor she was a Sunday school teacher of boys around Stinney's age and couldn't believe her state was going to put someone that young to death.
"Just as sure as this child is electrocuted, this deed will be looked back upon with shame and remorse, in later years, by the citizens of South Carolina," she wrote. "And the finger of scorn will be pointed at us by other states."