On George Stinney's death certificate, there exists one powerful word: homicide. Stinney was 14 when he was killed by the state of South Carolina for two murders that he may or may not have committed. Stinney figures to forever be the youngest person executed by the modern-day justice system, as a 2005 Supreme Court decision ended the barbaric practice of ceremonially killing human beings for crimes they committed in their youth.
George Stinney was put in a small room where three aggressive investigators worked hard for his confession. Landmark Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona hadn't yet been decided, so Stinney was not entitled to an attorney during his questioning. It has been reported that the investigators offered Stinney ice cream if he would confess to the murders - a chilling testament to a 14-year old's inability to comprehend the gravity of situations like his. No notes were taken, and the investigators emerged after a few hours with a confession that may or may not have taken place.
Stinney's trial was a circus, and the injustice continued with the appointment of his attorney. He was given a 30-year old tax planning attorney who had never tried a capital case. Making matters worse, his court-appointed attorney was planning a run for office, putting him in a dangerous conflict of interest that ensured the inadequacy of Stinney's defense. The entire trial, including jury selection, took just more than two hours. The jury was comprised entirely of white folks. At trial, the only evidence put forward by the prosecution was the testimony of the men who interrogated Stinney. The defense declined to cross-examine those witnesses or question their testimony in any way. Instead, the defense attorney opted for a strategy in which he asserted that Stinney was too young to be convicted of the crime. This seems reasonable until you realize that state law allowed 14-year olds to be tried as adults. The prosecution had to only produce evidence of Stinney's age to completely obliterate the entirety of Stinney's "defense."
The jury took ten minutes to deliberate before returning a chilling verdict: GUILTY. After a shameful clown show, George Stinney was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death by electrocution. The state killed him without so much as a direct appeal, as Stinney didn't have the money for an appellate lawyer and his family wasn't allowed in the town to counsel him. From arrest to execution, the entire process took less than three months.
George Stinney was just taller than five feet and he didn't weigh 100 pounds. He bravely carried a Bible under his arm as he walked toward the electric chair. Because the electric chair was not designed to kill small children, the prison guards asked him to use his book as a Biblical booster seat. The electric chair's mask wouldn't fit his face, and it slipped off during the execution, exposing a 14-year old's fear and terror. He died in only four minutes, done in by electrocution inflicted by the state and all of its citizens.
This is not the place where I plan to litigate the morality or utility of the death penalty. My thoughts on the issue are well-documented, and that argument will remain for another day. I will note, however, that the imposition of the death penalty in this case has left all of George Stinney's legal champions looking for little more than a posthumous pardon for his crimes. Even as a bright spotlight has been shined on South Carolina's murder of George Stinney, we cannot bring him back to life. The death penalty is final.
Instead, I want to discuss some of the things that led to George Stinney's heinous execution, and I want to point out to you that many of these things are not interred with Stinney's bones. They are alive and well in the very states that make up the "Death Belt."
The prosecution in Stinney's case was able to quickly rebut the defense's prime arguments because South Carolina law allowed for children - 5'1, 90-pound children - to be tried as adults for their alleged crimes. This practice is especially specious in light of the ice cream story. In one breath, the state held Stinney to be as mentally culpable for murder as an adult. In the next breath, it tried to get him to trade his life for a cone of ice cream. As I detailed two days ago, all states have a system that allows for kids to be tried as adults. Though those states have different methods and criteria for transferring cases from juvenile court to adult court, the result is the same. As of 2003, 7.1% of the kids transferred into adult court were 15 or younger.
The Supreme Court took some steps to remedy this issue in 2011 case J.D.B. v. North Carolina. The court was closely split, but it held 5-4 that police must take into account a person's age when determining whether a "reasonable person" would think that they are in custody. In effect, this would mean an extension of Miranda rights to children. The ruling is so murky, though, that it's unclear whether this will have any tangible effect on police practice.
George Stinney was largely unable to comprehend the legalese being thrown his way, and this remains a problem in courts across the country. Judges speak to 14-year olds as they'd speak to grown adults. Many children, out of fear and misunderstanding, will simply nod at a judge, a prosecutor, or even their own attorney when they do not understand the language. Some Texas courts have started to focus on making juvenile court more kid-friendly, but kids are often flying solo when they're tracked into adult court. Too often, children sign away their rights or agree to probation terms that they do not understand. The predictable result, at least for those kids on probation, is more violations and a return to prison.
Problems exist for another minority, as well. Many of the kids tracked through the juvenile system are of Latino origin, and many of these kids do not understand English as well as they should. Though courts make some effort to communicate with these kids, it is easy to see how difficult and important legal diction could get lost in translation. Unfortunately there are few people willing to step in when these problems arise for these disenfranchised kids.
Conspicuously absent from this writing has been, up to this point, the name of George Stinney's defense attorney. Charles Plowden was a 30-year old who had no business trying a capital case. His appointment to this position was a farce, and it would make for a suspicious bit of history if we had actually learned from it. Unfortunately, Charles Plowdens are still being appointed today to handle cases just like George Stinney's.
Plowden's plight is one faced by court-appointed defense attorneys today. Many depend financially upon the judge who appoints cases. The steady stream of state-paid work puts food on the table. Many justice advocates have asked the question - when it comes time to make a difficult decision, who is the attorney going to try to please? Will he work hard for his client? Or will he defend his client in a way that expedites the process and pleases the judge? This conflict of interest is dangerous and it undermines the very foundation of the attorney-client relationship.
The practice of appointing non-criminal lawyers to handle capital cases has largely abated though this was the norm in states like Texas for a few decades. Now, the problem in many states has to do with funding and a lack of oversight. In Michigan, court-appointed attorneys have handled 400 cases at one time with inadequate pay for each. The state of Mississippi employs a system where attorneys are so overworked that they often meet their clients in court for the arraignment. In many states across the South, attorneys are given absurd hourly caps on their payment, and they are paid anywhere from $50 to $100 per hour. In some cases, they are allowed to spend about half of the time that a good attorney would spend on a case. This creates a conundrum - do I work more hours for free to be prepared or do I show up to court without a proper case? You can guess which way this one sorts out in the real world for most clients.
Evidence suggests that we do have a way to represent people more effectively and for less money. The answer is public defender offices, where attorneys get training, support, access to investigative services, and decent salaries. Nearly every report on the issue indicates that a public defender's office is better than a system of court appointments on every level. Deval Patrick is trying to reform the Massachusetts system, adding a public defender infrastructure in a state where Mitt Romney once claimed that private attorneys should represent indigent clients pro-bono. It is easy to understand why public defender's offices are better for clients. For one, the attorneys there are ideologically committed to the plight of the poor. In addition, these offices are staffed by multiple attorneys. If one gets sick, or has a divorce, or runs into mental health trouble, or simply can't figure something out, the office has other attorneys that can run with the ball. When a defendant is assigned to a court-appointed attorney for a year-long capital process, he runs a tremendous risk.
With that knowledge in hand, would it surprise anyone to learn that some political figures want to do away with public defender's offices in order to return to the old system of crony appointment? The most egregious example is in Houston, where the newly formed PDO pays its attorneys well and is helping to remedy problems in what many consider Ground Zero for American injustice. There, a judge by the name of John Phillips works in the juvenile justice system. He made a tremendous amount of money taking appointed cases for himself before he was a judge. Now, he wants to go back to the old system, where he and his buddies can do nothing but appoint cases to their buddies who will serve the interests of the court over the interests of their clients. Phillips said:
"In short there is no evidence that a public defender's office can be of any benefit to the Harris County Juvenile Justice system," state District Judge John Phillips said last month in an open letter.This, after problems with Harris County attorney case-loads led one Indiana law professor to say:
"I regard it among the most flawed system of a major metropolitan area in the country."That professor went on to say:
"You have to care about it if you care about justice in Harris County," said Lefstein, who also used to run the public defenders office in Washington D.C. He says Harris County is the largest metropolitan area in the nation without a public defenders office.It also has a number of attorneys who exceed nationally recognized defense attorney case load limits developed by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice.Yet people like Phillips think the Harris County Public Defender's Office serves no purpose. Why could that be the case? Even though Harris County still appoints some lawyers to handle cases that the PDO cannot staff, the existence of a Public Defender's Office is threatening for judges that receive campaign donations from the lawyers they appoint to cases.
This has had a crippling effect on the juvenile division of the Harris County PDO, as some highly qualified attorneys are underloaded on salary, while court-appointed juvenile defenders are overloaded and being paid on a case-by-case basis. This is a poor result both economically and practically. Some Houston juvenile judges have been hostile to the PDO, and the bench has tried incessantly to undermine the office's credibility. In a legal system that requires attorneys to have bargaining power in order to make deals, this attack on credibility could prove problematic going forward.
The ghost of George Stinney is alive and well in places like Houston, where race continues to play a major role in the justice system. Even without diving into the relationship between race and poverty, one would have to be blind to see that our justice system is not color-blind. Stinney's situation highlights two areas where race plays a dramatic role int he proceedings. Reports suggest that black juvenile offenders are more likely to be tried as adults for the same crimes as white juvenile offenders. This is backed by a report from the Stanford department of psychology, which found that white jurors view juveniles more harshly when they believe the defendant is black.
The racial problems with the death penalty are well-documented, but George Stinney's alleged crime falls into the most unfortunate of categories. A black male killing white women was certainly punished more harshly back then, but it seems that we punish it more harshly today, too. One study found that a person who kills a white victim is roughly four times more likely to get the death penalty than a person who kills a black victim. This is a nod to the era of George Stinney, when people were so outraged over the killing of innocent white girls that they threatened the lynching of George Stinney's innocent black family. We may want to believe that we have moved past the sort of insidious mindset that assigns more value to white lives than black lives, but the mindset is permanently stained onto our justice system. We have, in effect, institutionalized the very racial inequality we seek to eradicate.
The ghost of George Stinney still lives, and his story must never be forgotten. A 14-year old weighing less than 100 pounds was put to death in a kangaroo court, where he was represented by a politically-minded tax attorney who failed to question a single witness, either the prosecution's or his own. This story would live on as nothing more than a tragic piece of our country's shameful racial history, but many of the things that allowed it to happen are still with us today.
Mon Jan 21, 2013 at 8:54 PM PT: Updated and republished to reflect some first-hand observations after working in the juvenile justice system.