Dusty writ helps lawyer right 70-year-old wrong

George Stinney was executed at the age of 14 for the murder of two girls

By Phillip Bantz
The Daily Record Newswire

COLUMBIA, SC — The haunting mug shot of George Stinney – that now iconic, grainy, black-and-white photo of a doomed 14-year-old boy wearing prison stripes – is a window on South Carolina’s painful past.

The recent vacation of George’s 1944 murder conviction provided closure for his family and friends, and it gave Miller Shealy Jr., the veteran attorney at the heart of the case, a chance to view the law through a new and powerful prism.

George was convicted during a sham trial in 1944 of murdering two girls with a railroad spike and then he was quickly executed by electrocution. He was reportedly so small that the straps on the electric chair were too loose and his executioners had to use a Bible as a booster seat.

George’s story garnered widespread attention in December when state circuit Judge Carmen Mullen vacated his conviction by granting a petition for writ of error coram nobis filed by a pro bono legal team representing the Stinney family. In her order, Mullen called the case “a truly unfortunate episode in our history.”

It was Shealy, a former prosecutor who teaches criminal law at the Charleston School of Law, who realized that coram nobis was the key to overturning George’s conviction. He recently spoke with reporter Phillip Bantz about his effort to undo a 70-year-old wrong.

PB: How has your life changed since you became involved with George’s case?

MS: It has opened my eyes. It’s one thing to know something, to be aware of your past. But when you come face to face with it, with real people and real siblings, a real person like George Stinney, it really brings home how different the past was here for some people – for everybody – but especially for some people. I was a child when desegregation began and the schools changed in the late 60s and early 70s. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. But to see a case like this, to be around people who lived it, it brings it home to an emotional and existential level that I’ve never experienced before.

PB: How did you become involved with the Stinney family?

MS: I got a call in January of last year and someone wanted to talk with me in the press about the George Stinney case. I knew the reporter. My reaction was George Stinney who? Where this occurred [the town of Alcolu in Clarendon County], this is local legend. Everyone knows about it. Every few years something resurfaces. But I had never heard of George Stinney. My initial reaction was he doesn’t have a chance. He’s deceased. There were all kinds of problems and I didn’t really look into it.

When I got this call my family and I were in the Cayman Islands of all places. [He was teaching a course as part of an international studies program for law.] Here I am in the Caymans and here’s George Stinney who’s been dead 70 years and he lived a world away from the Caymans. It’s almost strange how things get put together.

An article was published in the local paper. A former student, Matt Burgess, who is with a law firm in Manning, he called me when I got back home and said, ‘I read the article. That’s my case.’ He said, ‘Can you help us because they’re [the state] moving to dismiss? I said, ‘Gosh, Matt I don’t know what I can do?’ But I thought about it, started doing some research, and I realized that things might not be as bleak and dark for George Stinney and his family as I originally thought. I learned about this 400-year-old writ, this writ of coram nobis. I realized there might be an angle here.

PB: Tell me more about coram nobis and why you decided to rely on that writ to overturn George’s conviction?

MS: Coram nobis is right up there with habeas corpus and these other writs that people used when they were mistreated or there was a miscarriage of justice. We could not file this as a motion for a new trial under the current rules of criminal procedure. Those didn’t exist 70 years ago. We could not file post conviction relief, and habeas has now been so narrowed over the past 30 or 40 years that we could not file a habeas application.

Coram nobis started off as a writ in civil and criminal court 400 or 500 years ago. Like most writs, they have a life of their own. They evolve with common law. How it started off was it was a writ filed in the court that had the original case before it. It’s not an appellate matter or a motion for a new case. It is about correcting facts and fundamental errors of law. You’re telling the court that there are certain errors in the record before it and to correct the errors usually meant to reverse the verdict or the judgment. Coram nobis is not an appellate matter.

Coram nobis has to be filed in the same court where the matter was originally brought. The court of general sessions that sits in Clarendon County is, in terms of its office, the same court to this day. So that’s where we filed it. That’s what started the whole thing.

PB: Have you discovered an angle that others could use to overturn longstanding convictions?

MS: I don’t think so at all. I’m kind of glad about that. I’m kind of not glad about that. We now have modern remedies. Coram nobis is not designed to give you a second bite at the apple. You have to go to coram nobis as a last resort. For younger people incarcerated, post conviction relief and habeas are the routes you have to take. There’s no reason for you to do coram nobis.

PB: So in George’s case coram nobis was the only option?

MS: The post-conviction relief statute didn’t exist in 1940. That’s now the primary form of relief for state court. When I was a prosecutor I had several people file coram nobis motions and I routinely got them dismissed because they should have filed a habeas first or raised the issue on post conviction relief. You had a chance to litigate all that. Because George Stinney got an unfair trial and didn’t get an appeal and his due process rights were violated at the time of his trial we thought this was the right case to do it.

PB: Did you make up your mind about George’s innocence or guilt while you were working on his case?

MS: I did. There’s reasonable doubt all over the place. There are some things I can’t say. I just can’t say them. There’s evidence we have that came to our attention from very credible people who would say things like, ‘My father or grandfather told me years ago not to talk about that case, that boy got railroaded.’ There are more than just a few suggestions like that. He could have been the scapegoat. What he would have to do as small and slight as he was to kill them was just an enormous stretch. And there’s no motive.

PB: But didn’t he confess to the murders?

MS: We had some very good witnesses, experts about confessions [who raised doubts about the validity of George’s alleged confession]. His confession was never written down. We don’t know the circumstances under which it was made. It was supposedly made to two white police officers. His family had to leave town. They were threatened. They did not go to the trial. They never saw George Stinney alive again. They buried him in an unmarked grave. It’s still unmarked because they were afraid people would desecrate it or do something.

PB: Was his conviction overturned based on his innocence or because his constitutional rights were violated?

MS: You could read it both ways. That [his innocence] was relevant in terms of what the judge did. But it was mainly the nature of the trial.

PB: If the state were to appeal Judge Mullen’s order, what would be the basis of the appeal?

MS: They could argue that coram nobis was improperly used, that there was no jurisdiction, that the family didn’t have standing. I think it really puts the solicitor in a horrific position to argue this. That’s part of the great irony of this case and how things have changed in this part of South Carolina. Here I am and my partners on this case are all white men. On the other side is Chip Finney, who is the solicitor, and he’s African-American. He’s the first African-American solicitor in that state. His father was the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court. That’s how things have changed. And Chip Finney was on the other side. This is the good thing about this. It shows you how things have changed. It’s just a complete reversal.

Editor’s Note: After this interview Finney announced that the state would not appeal.

PB: I’ve heard this case described as a hollow victory. It’s 70 years after the fact and George has been executed. That can’t ever be reversed.

MS: It’s not hollow for his family. It’s not hollow for the people who live with their brother’s conviction and the stain on their family and what they’ve been through. It’s not a hollow victory for them at all. It takes a burden off their shoulders that has been there for 70 years. They don’t get him back, but they have some peace of mind that this kind of horrible injustice can be fixed if the state is willing to do it.

PB: The order in George’s case came at a volatile time with the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner dominating the news. Do you think George’s conviction being vacated will help restore public confidence in the judicial system?

MS: It happened at a very opportune time. The system is not jaded and racist the way people think. I don’t buy that. Yes, there are errors and miscarriages of justice. Every human system has problems and weaknesses because we do. But the system is pretty darn good. At the end of the day, it may take a while to work through it, but that’s part of it.