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US judge hears appeal on teen executed in 1940s

George Stinney Jr appears in an undated police booking photo provided by the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Newspaper reports at the time said the 95lb (43kg) George Stinney could not fit into the straps in the electric chair

A South Carolina judge is hearing arguments over whether to grant a new trial to a 14-year-old black boy executed for murder in 1944.

George Stinney's supporters say his conviction for the murder of two white girls was tainted by the era's racist justice system and a lack of evidence.

Most evidence in the case, including Stinney's alleged confession, has been lost over time.

Analysts say it is unlikely Stinney will be granted a new trial.

But those seeking Stinney's exoneration say they will apply for a pardon if the trial is not granted.

'Day in court'

Speaking before a packed courtroom on Tuesday, Judge Carmen Mullen said the case was a "tragic situation," the Post and Courier newspaper reported.

"No-one here can justify a 14-year-old child being charged, tried and executed in 83 days," she said.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Advocates, including George Frierson (centre), say they will continue to fight to exonerate Stinney regardless of the appeal's outcome

"In essence, not much was done for this child when his life lay in the balance."

Judge Mullen noted she was not going to rule on whether or not Stinney was innocent but whether he received a fair trial.

Two girls, seven and 11, were found beaten to death a day after they reportedly spoke to Stinney and his sister.

After a search party found the girls, the teenager was reportedly pulled from his parents and interrogated without a lawyer.

Only a few months passed between the time of the murders and Stinney's execution.

On Tuesday, prosecutor Ernest Finney said the loss of evidence in the case did not mean it was deliberately destroyed.

"Back in 1944, we should have known better, but we didn't," Mr Finney, who is the son of South Carolina's first black chief justice, told the Associated Press news agency.

He said prosecutors did a good job in the context of South Carolina's legal system during that period.

One of Stinney's most outspoken supporters, George Frierson, said he had spent a decade fighting to get the boy exonerated.

"Somebody that didn't kill someone is finally getting his day in court," he said.

Stinney remains the youngest person executed in the US in 100 years. Outcry at the time over a 14-year-old going to the electric chair did not stop the execution.

According to contemporary newspaper accounts, Stinney's diminutive size - he weighed 95lb (43kg) and stood about 5ft 2in (1.57m) tall - gave his executioners trouble carrying out the sentence.

He was so small the straps of the electric chair did not fit around him, and an electrode was too big for his leg.

Mr Frierson and others working on behalf of Stinney's family say they have gathered new evidence, including sworn statements from his relatives accounting for him on the day the two girls were killed, as well as a statement from a pathologist disputing the autopsy findings.

South Carolina at the time was a centre of the southern US states' official segregationist racism, known as the Jim Crow system.

In that atmosphere, police in Clarendon County undertook little investigation after they decided Stinney was to blame for the murders, Stinney's family and supporters say.

Image copyright AP
Image caption A photograph of Stinney (right, in prison clothes) taken about a week before his execution illustrates how small the boy was

On Tuesday, Stinney's sister told local broadcaster WLTX her brother was innocent, and police had forced a confession out of him.

"[The police] were looking for someone to blame it on, so they used my brother as a scapegoat," Amie Ruffner told the broadcaster.

Relatives of one of the girls killed, 11-year-old Betty Binnicker, have recently spoken out as well. One relative said Stinney was known to threaten to fight or kill people who came too close to the grass where he grazed the family cow.

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