Incoming 1L students learn powerful lesson from George Stinney case

Professor Miller Shealy and Charleston School of Law President Ed Bell recently spoke to an incoming class of 1L students about their roles in the historic George Stinney case, which exonerated a 14-year-old boy who had been convicted of murder and executed by the state of South Carolina in 1944.

The George Stinney case is perhaps one of the most shocking miscarriages of justice in South Carolina history. In March 1944, two white girls were murdered in Alcolu, SC, and police quickly pinned the blame on Stinney, a 14-year-old Black boy who had encountered the girls while they were searching for flowers. Police took him in for questioning and reported that he confessed to the murders within 40 minutes.

Stinney’s trial was expedited, and an all-white jury convened 31 days later. Testimony took less than three hours, and the jury deliberated for 10 minutes before finding the child guilty. The judge handed down his death sentence immediately. In June, George, sitting on a Bible because he was too small for the electric chair, was executed. It was a swift miscarriage of justice that caused protests throughout the state and lingered in memories for generations.

Stinney was finally exonerated of the crime 70 years later thanks, in part, to the work of Charleston School of Law graduate Matt Burgess. The young lawyer was working for a firm in Manning, SC when he learned of the case and began researching it. He contacted George’s surviving siblings and officially requested a new trial.

He also recruited Miller Shealy to help after his former professor publicly expressed doubt in a newspaper article that the case could be won. Shealy, an expert in criminal procedure, agreed to help Burgess and crafted a strategy that would allow the court to vacate a judgment that occurred so long ago by using the writ of coram nobis.

Allyson Haynes Stuart teaches a Summer Honors class for incoming 1L students called Advanced Access to Justice. Each summer, she invites a variety of lawyers, judges, and scholars to discuss how they’ve used the law as a tool for social justice and introduces them to topics including racial justice, victims’ justice, civil justice for low-income clients, homelessness, immigration, and the environment.

Professor Haynes Stuart thought the George Stinney case would provide her students with an excellent example of using the law to promote social justice and asked Professor Shealy and President Bell to speak to her students about their roles in the case.

“Miller used a very novel theory to allow the court to vacate a judgment that occurred so long ago but that violates our Constitution in many ways, primarily based on the age of the defendant and the lack of procedural protections,” she said.

During the process of bringing a new trial to court, President Bell advised Stinney’s family on available remedies.

Students learned about how Shealy’s strategy worked and resulted in the judge declaring the Stinney case a great injustice and vacating his conviction.

For more on the George Stinney case, including alternative theories of who murdered the two little girls from Alcolu, read The Post and Courier’s award-winning five-part investigation from 2018.

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