The Progenitor

GEORGE STINNEY: Black 14-year-old Boy Executed for Murder, Discovered to be Wrongful Conviction after 70 Years

George Junius Stinney Jr. (born October 21, 1929, died June 16, 1944) was, at age 14, the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century.

Classification: Homicide

Characteristics: Juvenile (14) – The youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century

Number of victims: 2

Date of murders: March 24, 1944

Date of arrest: Next day

Date of birth: October 21, 1929

Victims profile: Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 8

Method of murder: Beating with a 15 inch railroad spike

Location: Clarendon County, South Carolina, USA

Status: Executed by electrocution on June 16, 1944

The case

Stinney, who was black, was arrested for murdering two white girls, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 8, in Alcolu, located in Clarendon County, South Carolina, on March 23, 1944.

The girls had disappeared while out riding their bicycle looking for flowers. As they passed the Stinney property, they asked young George Stinney and his sister, Katherine, if they knew where to find “maypops”, a type of flower. When the girls did not return, search parties were organized, with hundreds of volunteers, and their bodies were found the next morning in a ditch filled with muddy water. Both had suffered severe head wounds.Stinney was arrested a few hours later and was interrogated by several white officers in a locked room with no witnesses aside from the officers; within an hour, a deputy announced that Stinney had confessed to the crime.

According to the confession, Stinney (90 lbs, 5’1″) wanted to “have sex with” 11 year old Betty June Binnicker and could not do so until her companion, Mary Emma Thames, age 8, was removed from the scene; thus he decided to kill Mary Emma. When he went to kill Mary Emma, both girls “fought back” and he thus decided to kill Betty June, as well, with a 15 inch railroad spike that was found in the same ditch a distance from the bodies.

According to the accounts of deputies, Stinney apparently had been successful in killing both at once, causing major blunt trauma to their heads, shattering the skulls of each into at least 4-5 pieces. The next day, Stinney was charged with first-degree murder. Stinney family left town during the night in fear for their lives.

The trial: it took place on April 24 at the Clarendon County Courthouse. Jury selection began at 10 am, ending just after noon, and the trial commenced at 2:30 pm. Stinney’s court appointed lawyer was 30-year-old Charles Plowden, who had political aspirations. Plowden did not cross-examine witnesses, his defense was reported to consist of the claim that Stinney was too young to be held responsible for the crimes. However the law in South Carolina at the time regarded anyone over the age of 14 as an adult.

Closing arguments concluded at 4:30 pm, the jury retired just before 5 pm and deliberated for 10 minutes, returning a guilty verdict with no recommendation for mercy. Stinney was sentenced to death in the electric chair. When asked about appeals, Plowden replied that there would be no appeal, as the Stinney family had no money to pay for a continuation. When asked about the trial, Lorraine Binnicker Bailey, the sister of Betty June Binnicker, one of the murdered children, stated:

“Everybody knew that he done it, even before they had the trial they knew that he done it. But, I don’t think that they had too much of a trial”.

Local churches, the N.A.A.C.P., and unions pleaded with Governor Olin D. Johnston to stop the execution and commute the sentence to life imprisonment, citing Stinney’s age as a mitigating factor. There was substantial controversy about the pending execution, with one citizen writing to Johnston, stating, “Child execution is only for Hitler”. Still, there were supporters of Stinney’s execution; another letter to Johnston stated: “Sure glad to hear of your decision regarding the nigger Stinney.” Johnston did nothing, thereby allowing the execution to proceed.

Execution

The execution was carried out at the South Carolina State Penitentiary in Columbia, South Carolina on the morning of June 16, 1944, less than three months after the crime. At 7:30 a.m. Stinney walked to the execution chamber, a bible under his arm. There were difficulties strapping the boy who at 5-1 feet and just over 90 lbs was comparably small for his age, to the electric chair. In addition, the face mask used in executions did not fit properly.

As a result, according to witnesses, it slid of his face during the execution, exposing his face to the witnesses. Stinney was pronounced dead less than four minutes after the execution began.

 

Controversy

Until today, the Stinney case has been regarded as controversial because it has not really satisfactorily been solved and because the investigations and judicial process showed severe shortcomings.

It was later found that a beam with which the two girls had been killed weighed over twenty pounds. It was ruled that George stinney wasn’t able to lift the beam, let alone swing it hard enough to kill the two girls.

Although legitimate questions linger concerning the quality of Stinney’s defense team, no appeal was ever made. Politics may have played a strong role in that decision. In 1944, Plowden was scheduled to run for public office on the state level. There was speculation that he did not want to disrupt the community by appearing to be too enthusiastic about defending a killer who many felt deserved to die for his offense. Years later, in an interview, Plowden commented on the case: “There was nothing to appeal on” and added the Stinney family had no funds to continue the case (Bruck, sec. D).

Initially, it may appear that george Stinney’s trial and execution were the product of a racist justice system, but it isn’t that final. Perhaps a case could be made as to the objectivity and fairness of the judicial process. The judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and jury all had friends, relatives and co-workers who lived in Alcolu. The Alderman Lumber Company employed hundreds of workers in the area who participated in the search. The crime and its lurid details were highly publicized and the racial nature of the case certainly influenced some of the community as well. However, nothing illegal was done during the investigation and prosecution of the case. All the procedures utilized by the police, courts, prosecution and prison system conform to the existing standards and legal requirements of the time and place. The court was well aware of Stinney’s age but the laws of the time allowed for a capital prosecution of a 14-year-old defendant.

The day after george Stinney’s execution, June 16, 1944, a small, three-inch article appeared in The State newspaper, which contained the following line “Stinney, 14 years and five months old, was the youngest person ever to die in the chair”.

Incredibly, the crime for which he was executed had occurred just 81 days before, a time span that seems unthinkable to us today. In modern times, it is common for many years to pass before a convicted killer faces an execution. Stinney was buried in an unknown location and immediately forgotten by everyone except his family. In 1994, on the 50th anniversary of the case, Stinney’s sister, Catherine Robinson was interviewed. She stated that her brother wrote to her parents while he was on Death Row in Columbia, South Carolina. George told them he was innocent (The State, June 17, 1994).

However, Vermelle Tucker, Betty June’s sister, had this to say in the same article: “All my dad said was ‘Thank God he won’t do it to anybody else’” (The State, June 17, 1994). Indeed, he never would. But George Junius Stinney Jr., on June 16, 1944, became a tragic and unwilling fragment of American history as the youngest person legally executed in America during the 20th century.

Reopening of case.

In 2004, George Frierson, a local historian who grew up in Alcolu, started researching the case after reading a newspaper article about it. His work gained the attention of South Carolina lawyers Steve McKenzie and Matt Burgess. In addition, Ray Brown, attorney James Moon, and others contributed countless hours of research and review of historical documents, and found witnesses and evidence to assist in exonerating Stinney. Among those who aided the case were the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) at Northeastern University School of Law, which filed an amicus brief with the court in 2014. Frierson and the pro bono lawyers first sought relief through the Pardon and Parole Board of South Carolina.

McKenzie and Burgess, along with attorney Ray Chandler representing Stinney’s family, filed a motion for a new trial on October 25, 2013.

If we can get the case re-opened, we can go to the judge and say, ‘There wasn’t any reason to convict this child. There was no evidence to present to the jury. There was no transcript. This case needs to be re-opened. This is an injustice that needs to be righted.’ I’m pretty optimistic that if we can get the witnesses we need to come forward, we will be successful in court. We hopefully have a witness that’s going to say — that’s non-family, non-relative witness — who is going to be able to tie all this in and say that they were basically an alibi witness. They were there with Mr. Stinney and this did not occur.

— Steve McKenzie

George Frierson stated in interviews, “there has been a person that has been named as being the culprit, who is now deceased. And it was said by the family that there was a deathbed confession.” Frierson said that the rumored culprit came from a well-known, prominent white family. A member, or members, of that family had served on the initial coroner’s inquest jury, which had recommended that Stinney be prosecuted.

In its amicus brief, the CRRJ said:

There is compelling evidence that George Stinney was innocent of the crimes for which he was executed in 1944. The prosecutor relied, almost exclusively, on one piece of evidence to obtain a conviction in this capital case: the unrecorded, unsigned “confession” of a 14-year-old who was deprived of counsel and parental guidance, and whose defense lawyer shockingly failed to call exculpating witnesses or to preserve his right of appeal.

New evidence in the court hearing in January 2014 included testimony by Stinney’s siblings that he was with them at the time of the murders. In addition, an affidavit was introduced from the “Reverend Francis Batson, who found the girls and pulled them from the water-filled ditch. In his statement he recalls there was not much blood in or around the ditch, suggesting that they may have been killed elsewhere and moved.”Wilford “Johnny” Hunter, who was in prison with Stinney, “testified that the teenager told him he had been made to confess” and always maintained his innocence.

The solicitor for the state of South Carolina, who argued for the state against exoneration, was Ernest A. Finney III. He is the son of Ernest A. Finney Jr., who was appointed as South Carolina’s first African American State Supreme Court justice since Reconstruction.

Rather than approving a new trial, on December 17, 2014, circuit court Judge Carmen Mullen vacated Stinney’s conviction. She ruled that he had not received a fair trial, as he was not effectively defended and his Sixth Amendment right had been violated. The ruling was a rare use of the legal remedy of coram nobis. Judge Mullen ruled that his confession was likely coerced and thus inadmissible. She also found that the execution of a 14-year-old constituted “cruel and unusual punishment”, and that his attorney “failed to call exculpating witnesses or to preserve his right of appeal. Mullen confined her judgment to the process of the prosecution, noting that Stinney “may well have committed this crime.” With reference to the legal process, Mullen wrote, “No one can justify a 14-year-old child charged, tried, convicted and executed in some 80 days,” concluding that “In essence, not much was done for this child when his life lay in the balance.