In a case that could have ripple effects in criminal justice, constitutional rights, race relations, and capital punishment, the 1944 conviction and execution of a black 14-year old boy for a double murder has been vacated by a South Carolina judge.
George Stinney, Jr. was arrested for killing two white girls, aged 8 and 11, confessed to the murders after a brief interrogation by white police officers, stood trial for just three hours with a defense attorney who presented no evidence or witness on his behalf, and was electrocuted less than 3 months later after no appeal was filed. Technically, he was afforded due process, but this child was also clearly railroaded at every turn.
Though I’m not certain, this is the first case I can recall of a conviction overturned after execution. That was a grim milestone many in the anti-capital punishment movement long dreaded.
However, some death penalty advocates argue that executing an innocent person is impossible, either by virtue of the rigors of the criminal justice system and its perpetual appeal process, or by definition, arguing that a person who has been convicted by a jury after a trial is necessarily not innocent, regardless of what actually happened.
That we executed a 14-year old boy should give anyone pause, especially the pro-life community, who often use the inate innocence of childhood to buttress their arguments defending the unborn (and just-born). But when such a young victim of the state is judged to be actually innocent, death penalty advocates have some real questions to answer.
Is the execution of an innocent person, even a child, enough to undermine faith in the criminal justice system as a whole, and capital punishment in particular? If one error is not convincing enough, is there some acceptable level of innocent life ended at the hands of the state (or their peers, if that makes you feel better) that would change your mind? Or is the (spurious) deterrent factor of the death penalty or faith in the process, regardless of further evidence, so strong as to make all wrongful convictions and executions irrelevant?
Editor’s Note: Check out Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, an organization of high-profile conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans like Richard Viguerie, former Congressman Ron Paul, Ramesh Ponnuru, and others who are skeptical about the capital punishment.