I came across a piece entitled “A Boy’s Execution 70 Years Later,” on the editorial page of the New York Times on Monday, June 16. It told the story of George Stinney Jr., a 14-year-old black youth who was arrested and charged with the murder of two white girls. They were found beaten to death in a ditch in rural Clarendon County, S.C.
One month later George was tried and found guilty. Less than three months after his arrest he was executed on June 16, 1944 — “the youngest person to be put to death in the 20th century. He was so small that the guards struggled to strap him to the electric chair, and the jolt of electricity knocked the mask from his face.”
The piece, written by Jesse Wegman, of the Times editorial board, asserts that there is “strong evidence that George Stinney was in fact innocent, and that his arrest and prosecution were riddled with unconstitutional errors and misconduct.” In January, he noted, “a coalition of lawyers and civil-rights advocates made these arguments before a South Carolina court to either retry or exonerate him, 70 years after his execution.”
In 2005, six decades after Stinney was put to death, the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for minors. “But,” writes Wegman, “elements of the case still echo today. Some states are trying to short-circuit the capital appeals process so that executions can happen more quickly.”
In 1972, it looked as if the Supreme Court was ready to abolish the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. But in 1976, the Court retreated. Justice John Paul Stevens voted with the majority. But, Stevens, now 94, and retired from the Court since 2012, has had a change of heart.
In a new book, “Six Amendments,” he argues for the abolition of the death penalty. His reason, as Cass R. Sunstein, of Harvard, cited in an essay in the New York Review of Books, is that “no legal system is likely to be able to eliminate the risk of executing innocent people.“ A recent study, according to Castein, estimates that over 4 percent of all death row inmates were wrongly convicted.
Why does the U.S. still have the death penalty? There are excellent reasons for committing it to the dustbin of history — it’s immoral, does not deter murder, and mostly affects minorities. It’s also more expensive than imprisonment for life, a subject maybe for another day.
“For me,” writes former justice John Paul Stevens, “the question that cannot be avoided is whether the execution of only ‘an insignificant minimum’ of innocent citizens is tolerable in a civilized society. Given the availability of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as an alternative method of preventing the defendant from committing further crimes and deterring others from doing so, and the rules that prevent imposing an 'eye for an eye' form of retributive punishment, I find the answer to that question pellucidly clear. When it comes to state-mandated killings of innocent civilians, there can be no 'insignificant minimum.'”
This article originally appeared in the San Leandro Times.