The Moral Universe – In Our Presence


I want you to look deep into the eyes of this child before you read any further. Now think of yourself when you were fourteen years old. Who were you then? Were you naïve, gullible, boy- or girl-crazy, mischievous, studious, a showoff, an introvert? Did you go to the movies on Saturday afternoon, read Nancy Drew or Judy Blume books in your spare time, hang out with friends and talk about your crushes, sneak out of the house without your parents seeing the outrageous outfit you had on?

George-Stinney-Jr (2)This is George Stinney Jr. He never got to do those things. He was executed in South Carolina for a crime he most likely did not commit. The state had to seat him on telephone books so that the head piece of the electric chair reached his head. The electricity convulsed him and caused the mask over his face to fly off, so that observers had to witness the agony on his face.

Is your heart broken yet? I hope it is.

Seventy years after his execution in 1944, the state of South Carolina vacated George’s murder conviction last December. A judge found that George’s case had many problems. There was no actual evidence that George had killed two young white girls who were riding their bicycles in the area. The girls’ heads were bashed in, presumably with a railroad tie, and their bodies left in a ditch. No one questioned how George, under 5 feet tall and less than 100 pounds, could have overpowered not one, but two adolescent girls long enough to commit this crime. No one considered his sister’s statement that he was with her at the time of the murder.

All that was believed was a handwritten statement by a police officer that George had confessed to the crime, even though there was no lawyer, no family member, no disinterested witness to this confession. The defense called no witnesses in George’s behalf. The jury deliberated for only 10 minutes after a two-hour trial. The defense lawyer filed no appeal of the conviction.

The South Carolina town where George lived was still segregated in 1944. The police were white, the lawyers were white, the jury was white. George was black. What hope did he have?

Coram nobis, according to The Washington Post, “is a legal remedy that can be used only when a conviction was based on an error of fact or unfairly obtained in a fundamental way and when all other remedies have been exhausted.” It literally means “before us” or “in our presence.” It is very rarely used, and the judge who vacated the conviction said that George’s case is not meant to be a legal template for other families seeking justice years after a loved one has been executed for a crime the family believes the loved one did not commit.

But I hope it does become a legal template. I hope that it is never too late for justice to prevail. I hope it is never too late to bring before us, to put into our presence, those injustices of our racist society and make them right.

While the vacating of the conviction doesn’t help George at all, while he will never go on a first date, finish school, get a job, raise a family, bounce grandchildren on his knee, this child’s family can lay down their burden of grief over the injustice that George and the family suffered. Other families should be able to do the same. In our presence and in our present.