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Charleston law students take on 1944 murder case

Ashley Heffernan
  • Ashley Heffernan
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Charleston School of Law President Ed Bell explains that a new clinical externship class will help his law firm file a lawsuit on behalf of the George Stinney Jr. family (Photo/Ashley Heffernan)

On June 16, 1944, George Stinney Jr. was executed in the electric chair after he was convicted of the murder of two young white girls.

The jury of 12 in Clarendon County deliberated on his fate for 10 minutes, according to court records. Few or no witnesses were called by the court-appointed defense attorney. No appeals were filed. No stays of execution were requested.

He was black, weighing 95 lbs. and standing just over 5 feet tall, S.C. Department of Corrections records show.

A document dated June 16, 1944, states George Stinney Jr. was electrocuted “in accordance with law and in execution of the judgment pronounced against him.” (Document/S.C. Department of Archives & History)Stinney was 14 years old. He is commonly referred to as the youngest person in the 20th century to be sentenced to death in the United States.

Seven decades later, in 2014, Circuit Judge Carmen T. Mullen vacated Stinney’s conviction, writing in his order that it is a “truly unfortunate episode in our history.” He ruled that the court had failed to provide proper “constitutional safeguards in the administration of justice.”

Charleston School of Law students and a Georgetown law firm will attempt to take the case further.

“The George Stinney case is back,” law school President Ed Bell said. “We’re going to fight for that family. This law school will fight for George Stinney, and this law school class will be a part of it.”

Seventeen students are enrolled in a clinical externship class this semester that Bell says is the first and only one of its kind. Instead of law school students going to their externships with law firms or judges, as is typical, students in this class will have the law firm come to them. They will be taught cases by the attorneys who are involved and have an active role in the outcome. 

They “will be handling real cases, real people involved, real witnesses, real trials and real verdicts,” Bell said. “When they leave law school, they’ll have something that not any other law school today is doing. They’ll have real-life experience.”

The externship class is made up of third-year and second-year law students. The third-year students, under the supervision of a law professor, will participate in some of the preliminary hearings, pretrial motions and depositions, among other things. The second-year students will be responsible for researching the case and helping the older students.

The goal, Bell said, is for the second-year students to take the class again next year so that they can participate in court proceedings as well before they graduate.

The new course is designed to help students learn not only legal theory, which is a basic law school principle, but also how to practice law, which Bell said he didn’t learn to do until after graduation.

“Unlike law students who graduated in my day and had to learn how to try cases after receiving a law license, this practical course will help our students understand how to work in the system and, we hope, be ready to practice law on the day they get their law license,” he said.

Bell’s Georgetown law firm, Bell Law Group, will represent Stinney and his family pro bono and share the case with the students.

Steve McKenzie, one of the attorneys who represented the Stinney family in the 2014 case, has been hired as an adjunct professor to teach the case to the students, and professor Miller Shealy, director of the clinical externship program, will oversee the class. Bell will also teach part of the class.

Stinney’s four sisters and brother are still alive and likely will be part of the case, Shealy said.

“It’s important to me because this is indicative that George Stinney could very well still be alive today if this had not happened to him so many years ago in the spring of 1944,” Shealy said.

The attorneys in the original case, as well as the judge and police officials, are not still alive, though, so it’s too early to know who or what entity, such as the state or county, will be sued. Finding a suitable defendant and determining whether a monetary settlement is applicable — based on laws from the 1940s — will be part of the research and work that the law school students do.

Bell, who said he believes Stinney didn’t kill the young girls, said his law firm may know who did the crime based on “some admissions of certain people.” He declined to specify whom he suspects or who he thinks should be sued.

“It may very well be a hollow victory,” Bell said. “It may be one that there’s no money to be collected. But the fact is we’ve got to figure out a way in our society to take these wrongs and learn from them. If we can learn from this, what happened 70 years ago, it may very well have applications to what’s going on today.”

The law firm and students will most likely file a civil rights case in federal court. If successful, it could set a precedent that would help others who file wrongful conviction suits, Bell said.

In addition to the Stinney case, the class will work on medical malpractice, automobile accident and post-conviction relief cases. All clients will be represented by Bell Law Group, with the help of the students.

Bell Law Group is funding the full cost of the clinical externship program, which includes paying staff to meet with students and paying the cost of the litigation. Bell declined to provide a price for the program, but he said he recently read that the estimated cost of clinic programs is $4,000 to $12,000 per student.

He emphasized that all of the cases the students work on will be pro bono for clients.

Additionally, “We have been very studious to make sure that there’s no conflict of interest,” Bell said. “In fact, it’s the same thing as if you’re going to an externship program with a local law firm. We just happen to do it here at the law school.”

This story originally appeared in the Sept. 5, 2016, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.

Reach Ashley Heffernan at 843-849-3144.

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