Stinney's mug shot
|Born||George Junius Stinney, Jr.
October 21, 1929
Pinewood, South Carolina, United States
|Died||June 16, 1944
Columbia, South Carolina, United States
|Criminal penalty||Death by electric chair|
|Conviction(s)||First-degree murder (vacated)|
George Junius Stinney Jr. (October 21, 1929 – June 16, 1944), an African-American, age 14, was convicted at a flawed trial of murder in 1944 in his home town of Alcolu, South Carolina. He was the youngest person in the United States in the 20th-century to be sentenced to death and to be executed.
Stinney was convicted in 1944 in a one-day trial of the first-degree murder of two white girls: 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and 8-year-old Mary Emma Thames. After being arrested, Stinney was said to have confessed to the crime. There was no written record of his confession apart from notes provided by an investigating deputy, and no transcript of the brief trial. He was executed by electric chair.
Since Stinney's conviction and execution, the question of his guilt, the validity of his reported confession, and the judicial process leading to his execution have been extensively criticized.
A group of lawyers and activists investigated the Stinney case on behalf of his family. In 2013 the family petitioned for a new trial. On December 17, 2014, his conviction was posthumously vacated 70 years after his execution, because the circuit court judge ruled that he had not been given a fair trial; he had no effective defense and his Sixth Amendment rights had been violated. The judgment noted that while Stinney may in fact have committed the crime, the prosecution and trial were fundamentally flawed.
In 1944 George Junius Stinney, Jr. lived in Alcolu, Clarendon County, South Carolina. The 14-year-old African-American boy lived with his father, George Stinney, Sr., mother Aime, brother Charles, age 12, and sisters Katherine, age 10, and Aime, age 7, and a stepbrother, Johnny. George Sr. worked at the town's sawmill, and the family lived in housing provided by George Sr.'s employer. Alcolu was a small, working-class mill town, where white and black neighborhoods were separated by railroad tracks. The town was typical of small Southern towns of the time, with separate schools and churches for white and black residents, who rarely interacted.
The bodies of Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 8, were found in a ditch on the black side of Alcolu on March 23, 1944. They had been beaten with an improvised weapon variously reported as a piece of blunt metal or a railroad spike. The girls were last seen riding their bicycles looking for flowers. As they passed the Stinney property, they asked young George Stinney and his sister, Aime, if they knew where to find "maypops", a local name for passionflowers. According to Aime she was with George at the time of the murders.
When the girls did not return home, search parties were organized. George's father was among the searchers. The bodies of the girls were found the next morning, on the black side of town, in a ditch filled with muddy water. According to an article reported by the wire services on March 24, 1944, and published widely, with the mistake of the boy's name preserved, the sheriff announced the arrest and said that "George Junius" had confessed and led officers to "a hidden piece of iron." Both girls had suffered blunt force trauma to the face and head. Reports differed as to what kind of weapon had been used. According to a report by the medical examiner, these wounds had been "inflicted by a blunt instrument with a round head, about the size of a hammer." Both girls' skulls were punctured. The girls had not been sexually assaulted and their hymens were intact. The medical examiner reported the genitalia of the older girl were slightly bruised.
George Stinney was arrested on suspicion of murdering the girls along with his older stepbrother Johnny. Johnny was released, George was held and not allowed to see his parents until after his trial and conviction. According to a handwritten statement, the arresting officer was H.S. Newman, a Clarendon County deputy, who stated "I arrested a boy by the name of George Stinney. He then made a confession and told me where to find a piece of iron about 15 inches were [sic] he said he put it in a ditch about six feet from the bicycle." No confession statement signed by Stinney is known to exist.
George was reported to have gotten into fights at school, including a fight where he scratched a girl with a knife. This assertion by Stinney's seventh-grade teacher, who was black, was disputed by Aime Stinney Ruffner when it was reported in 1995. A local white woman who remembered Stinney from childhood said Stinney had threatened to kill her and her friend the day before the murder, and that he was known as a bully.
Following George's arrest, his father was fired from his job at the local sawmill, and the Stinney family had to immediately vacate the housing provided by Stinney Sr's employer. The family feared for their safety. His parents did not see George again before the trial. He had no support during his 81-day confinement and trial; he was kept at a jail in Columbia 50 miles from town because of the risk of lynching. Stinney was questioned alone, without his parents or an attorney. Although the Sixth Amendment guarantees legal counsel, it was not until 1963 that Gideon v. Wainwright explicitly required representation through the course of criminal proceedings.
The entire proceeding against Stinney, including jury selection, took one day. Stinney's court-appointed defense counsel was Charles Plowden, a tax commissioner campaigning for election to local political office. Plowden did not challenge the three police officers who testified that Stinney confessed to the two murders, despite this being the only evidence against him, and despite the prosecution's presentation of two different versions of Stinney's verbal confession. In one version Stinney was attacked by the girls after he tried to help one girl who had fallen in the ditch and he killed them in self defense. In the other version he had followed the girls, first attacking Mary Emma and then Betty June. There was no physical evidence linking him to the murders. There is no written record of Stinney's confession apart from Deputy Newman's statement.
Stinney's trial had an all-white jury. More than 1,000 people crowded the courtroom but no blacks were allowed. Other than the testimony of the three police officers, at trial prosecutors called three witnesses: Reverend Francis Batson, who discovered the bodies of the two girls, and the two doctors who performed the post-mortem examination. Conflicting confessions were reported to have been offered by the prosecution. The court allowed discussion of the "possibility" of rape despite an absence of evidence in the medical examiner's report. Stinney's counsel did not call any witnesses, did not cross-examine witnesses and offered little or no defense. Trial presentation lasted two and a half hours. The jury took ten minutes to deliberate, after which they returned with a guilty verdict. The judge sentenced Stinney to death by the electric chair. There is no transcript of the trial. No appeal was filed.
Stinney's family, churches and the NAACP appealed to Governor Olin Johnston for clemency, given the age of the boy. Others urged the governor to let the execution proceed, which he did. Johnston stated in a response to one appeal for clemency that "It may be interesting for you to know that Stinney killed the smaller girl to rape the larger one. Then he killed the larger girl and raped her dead body. Twenty minutes later he returned and attempted to rape her again, but her body was too cold. All of this he admitted himself." These assertions were not supported by the medical examiner's report.
Between the time of Stinney's arrest and his execution, Stinney's parents were allowed to see him once, after the trial in the Columbia penitentiary.
The execution of George Stinney was carried out at the Central Correctional Institution in Columbia on June 16, 1944, at 7:30 p.m. Standing 5 feet 1 inch (155 cm) tall and weighing just over 90 pounds (40 kg), Stinney was so small compared to the usual adult prisoners that law officers had difficulty securing him to the frame holding the electrodes. The state's adult-sized face-mask did not fit him; as he was hit with the first 2,400 V surge of electricity, the mask covering his face slipped off. Stinney was declared dead within four minutes of the initial electrocution. From the time of the murders until Stinney's execution, 83 days had passed.
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, in finding witnesses and evidence to assist in exonerating young Stinney. Among those who aided the case were the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) at Northeastern University School of Law, who 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 lawyer 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 child 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.
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 principle 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." 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."
Family members of both Betty Binnicker and Mary Thames expressed disappointment at the ruling. They said that, although they acknowledge his execution at the age of 14 is controversial, they never doubted his guilt. The niece of Betty Binnicker has said she and her family have extensively researched the case, and argues that "people who [just] read these articles in the newspaper don't know the truth." Binnicker's niece said that, in the early 1990s, a police officer who had arrested Stinney had contacted her and said: "Don't you ever believe that boy didn't kill your aunt." These family members said that the claims of a deathbed confession from an individual confessing to the girls' murders have never been substantiated.
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., appointed as South Carolina's first African-American State Supreme Court justice since Reconstruction.
Books and films about Stinney's case
David Stout based his first novel Carolina Skeletons (1988) on this case. He was awarded the 1989 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel. Stout suggests in the novel that Stinney, whom he renames Linus Bragg, was innocent. The plot revolves around a fictitious nephew of Stinney/Bragg, who unravels the truth about the case decades later.
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