Local panel discusses opera focusing on racial injustice


Pictured l-r: Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist; WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project Director Tracey Brame; former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan Patrick Miles, Jr.; and composer and co-librettist Frances Pollock served on the panel to discuss “Stinney: An American Execution,” hosted by the Federal Bar Association, West Michigan Bar Association and GR Opera.

Photo courtesy of WMU-Cooley Law School

GRAND RAPIDS– In coordination with the world premiere of the opera, “Stinney: An American Execution,” the Federal Bar Association hosted a panel discussion on Feb. 25 in partnership with Opera GR and the Grand Rapids Bar Association. The panel included Tracey Brame, director of the WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project; Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan Patrick Miles, Jr., and composer and co-librettist Frances Pollock.

At the age of 14, George Junius Stinney Jr., an African American, was convicted of murdering two white girls, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 7, in his hometown of Alcolu, South Carolina. In March 1944, police arrested Stinney, and on April 24 of that same year he was sentenced to die by electrocution. The execution took place in June 1944. In 2014, his name was cleared when a court ruled that Stinney had not received a fair trial and vacated his conviction.

The panel discussion focused on how the themes of racial injustice and law intersect in their depiction in art and in wrongful conviction cases today.

“He (George Stinney Jr.) had the perfect recipe for wrongful conviction and his story is a cautionary tale,” said Brame. “People still are rushed (by law enforcement) to give their statements, we see people who have inadequate counsel, all things that lead to wrongful convictions.”

Miles talked about the importance of reforms in the justice system.

“Some reforms we need to do don’t just affect the systems. We also need to look at the individuals who are carrying out these laws,” said Miles.

The panel cited present-day examples where the legal system continues to fail and concludes in wrongful conviction, such as the 10-year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death.

Gilchrist discussed how Stinney’s case was an example of the U.S. legal system going through the motions to reach a conviction that was predetermined. He rhetorically asked how the system could be reimagined so instead of “going through the motions,” justice can actually be served?

“My hope is, in doing this opera, we seize the opportunity to continue the conversation,” said Pollock. “I think the opportunity of programming Stinney is we have the potential to sit together. That’s rarely afforded to people who want the world to be a better place.”

The world premiere of Stinney: An American Execution was performed Feb. 25-27 by OperaGR. More information is at https://www.operagr.org/stinney/.

For more information about the WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project visit https://www.cooley.edu/academics/experiential-learning/innocence-project.

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