Nightly News   |  October 04, 2011

Teen executed in 1944 may have been innocent

George Stinney, Jr. was 14 years old when South Carolina executed him in 1944, making him the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. He was convicted of murdering two girls. Now there's a move to clear his name. NBC’s Mark Potter reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: From South Carolina tonight, there are troubling questions about justice. There's a new effort to right what many believe was a terrible wrong that dates back 67 years when a 14-year-old African-American boy was executed after a hasty trial and no defense. The story, reported on our partner website, generated so much interest we sent our own Mark Potter to talk with some people who are trying to clear the child's name.

MARK POTTER reporting: For years George Frierson , a South Carolina historian, has been haunted by the case of 14-year-old George Stinney Jr ., the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century.

Mr. GEORGE FRIERSON: Everyone wanted blood and they actually got blood.

POTTER: From a child.

Mr. FRIERSON: From a 14-year-old child.

POTTER: In the spring of 1944 in the tiny mill town of Alcolu , South Carolina , Stinney was accused of brutally beating to death two white girls, ages 11 and seven, who were picking flowers along the railroad tracks that separated the white and black sections of town. Their bodies were found out in this area somewhere?

Mr. FRIERSON: Their bodies were found just a little further down where it tails in into a ditch.

POTTER: The local sheriff says Stinney confessed to the crime, although there is no written account of that or of any physical evidence. The trial records have disappeared. Stinney 's brother Charles , a retired New York bishop, and his sister say George was with his family the day of the murders, that family run out of town right after the arrest.

Mr. CHARLES STINNEY: We had to leave that same night.

POTTER: On the day of the trial, this courthouse was packed with an overflow crowd of 1500 people, all white. Blacks were not allowed. The trial itself lasted only two and a half hours. The defense put on no case. The all-white jury convicted Stinney in 10 minutes. His court-appointed lawyer never filed an appeal. On June 16, 1944 , Stinney , the prisoner on the right, walked into an execution chamber. At 95 pounds and only five foot one, he was too small for the electric chair and had to sit on books to be electrocuted. His tiny fingerprints still on file in state records.

Mr. FRIERSON: We are asking for an apology from the state of South Carolina for actually putting a child to death, a barbaric practice.

POTTER: Frierson 's research drew the attention of attorney Steven McKenzie . He believes Stinney 's confession was coerced and has agreed to help clear his name.

Mr. STEVEN McKENZIE: Had he been tried today, this case would never have even seen a jury. A judge would have thrown this case out.

POTTER: The decision on reopening an investigation rests with county solicitor Ernest "Chip" Finney , who worries there's not enough evidence now to prove Stinney 's guilt or innocence.

Mr. ERNEST "CHIP" FINNEY: I would need to have something in order to move the case back to court, something more than just the emotion in the community about it.

POTTER: Many in that community are convinced Stinney 's trial itself was a travesty of justice, a horrible stain on American history . Mark Potter , NBC News, Manning, South Carolina .