Racism Fueled Rush To Judgment Against Teen?

George Junius Stinney, Jr. was 14 years old when South Carolina executed him, 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. Host Michel Martin speaks with Frank Wu, chancellor and dean of the University of California Hastings College of the Law. Wu has been an outspoken advocate for clearing Stinney's name.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a moment, you know him from our weekly Barbershop roundtable. He is also author of a new book, "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." Arsalan Iftikhar will be with us in a few minutes.

But first, we've spoken about the death penalty recently on this program in the wake of the recent execution of Troy Davis. Davis was a black man who until the end maintained his innocence in connection with the shooting death of a white, off-duty police officer.

Funeral services for Troy Davis were held this weekend, and they attracted more than 1,000 mourners, some of whom used the occasion to call for the end of the use of the death penalty in this country.

As part of that debate, activists are also pushing to clear the name of George Junius Stinney Jr. He was an African-American boy who was only 14 when he was executed for killing two little white girls more than half-a-century ago. He was put to death by the state of South Carolina after an all-white jury deliberated for 10 minutes, making him the youngest person executed in the 20th century in this country.

We wanted to know more about this. So we've called upon Frank Wu. He's chancellor and dean of the University of California Hastings College of Law. He's among those favoring exoneration for George Stinney. Professor Wu, thank you so much for joining us.

FRANK WU: It's great to be here with you again.

MARTIN: And as briefly as you can, could you tell us the facts about this? And I have to warn our listeners that some of these facts are gruesome. So this may not be appropriate for all listeners. So tell us, what are the facts of this case?

WU: Well, this is a very controversial case from South Carolina in 1944. So it's as World War II is still going on. Stinney was just a boy, about 14 years old, and two young girls disappeared while they were apparently out looking for flowers.

A search party was set up, and their bodies were then found. They'd been brutally killed, apparently head wounds. So someone really physically brutally killed them. And for reasons that aren't exactly clear, Stinney became a suspect, and even though he himself was only 14 years old, he became the focus of this, and a lynch mob formed. That was a practice that still went on, of course, in the Jim Crow South; a terrible, gruesome, tragic sort of thing that would still happen.

Stinney was spared the lynch mob. He was brought away by law enforcement. There was a trial. It was a very brief trial. He was represented by a defense attorney who wanted to go into politics, and apparently the defense attorney really didn't do much by way of cross-examination and so on but instead suggested that Stinney couldn't have done these crimes as just a boy himself.

The jury spent virtually no time out. They found him guilty. He was sentenced to die in the electric chair, and what the reports say is that they apparently in that time put a death mask on before someone received the lethal shock, but witnesses reported that when the shock was given to kill Stinney, the death mask fell off, and for several minutes you could see him in his death throes as he finally was killed.

So this is a case where the evidence was not good to begin with, and since that time, since 1944, it's only looked weaker and weaker as the problems with due process and the problems with the trial have come to the surface.

MARTIN: And just to add to this, you know, Professor Wu, his parents apparently were forced to leave the state. So he was alone. He was never interrogated in the presence of counsel or his parents. He had to endure the trial alone because, as we said, his parents were forced to leave the state. And, you know, so on and on and on. And of course, the death penalty is no longer permitted for people of that age in this country.

But why is there this push to exonerate him now, and why are you a part of it?

WU: Well, this case is - it's one of these tragedies where it's important to reach closure. I think for society as a whole, whatever your racial background, whatever your politics, when we look at a case like this, and we recognize that in this nation we value certain ideals, we value the notion that you have to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

And it would be hard to claim here that Stinney had been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. So I think it's important for all of us to look back at these injustices and to ask what is there that we can do now. We can't put it right, but we can look at the example and ask how should this change the way that we view the death penalty today.

MARTIN: Is it in fact part of the point here to point up again the ways in which the death penalty has, in the view of those who oppose it, has not served the interest of justice? Is that part of the reason that one wants to bring this forward? Because there are those who would argue that it's a terrible case, but this is picking at an old wound, this can't bring this little boy back, and the facts can never be known.

And it also is worth mentioning there was never a record of the confession that the sheriff says that he elicited from the boy. So the point of bringing it up, is it in part to point out the death penalty and the problems with the death penalty?

WU: I think there are two major points. The first is because an injustice was done in this particular case, and people want to, as best as society can, decades later, when you can't really put it right, but you can at least recognize that a wrong was done.

So first, it is about this case. But second, as you say, as part of the campaign against the death penalty, there are so many doubts in so many cases, not just in 1944 but even today, and because emotions run high, because these are violent, brutal cases where the victims - there's no question that some horrible wrong, a crime has been done to the victims, and we want so desperately to be able to identify the perpetrator and to say that that person has been punished, it becomes all too easy for us to lose sight of the fact that even if you support the death penalty, presumably we only want to execute the right person.

So, even more important than people who oppose the death penalty talking about this case, I think, is people who are supportive of the death penalty acknowledging and recognizing, and looking at this case as an example, where even if you believe the death penalty is appropriate in some instances, you certainly can't believe that it's right to execute innocent people or people who likely are not guilty.

MARTIN: Frank Wu is chancellor and dean of the University of California Hastings College of Law. He was kind enough to join us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Dean Wu, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

WU: Thanks so much.

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