George Junius Stinney Jr; the youngest person executed in the U.S.A.
George Junius Stinney Jr. (October 21, 1929 – June 16, 1944) was, at age 14, the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century. The question of Stinney’s guilt and the judicial process leading to his execution remain controversial. Stinney, who was black, was arrested on suspicion of 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 bicycles 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. The bodies of the girls 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; because there were no Miranda rights in 1944. Within an hour, a deputy announced that Stinney had confessed to the crime. No written confession exists, only a few handwritten notes a deputy who was present during the interrogation. Reports said that the officers had offered the boy ice cream for confessing to the crimes. According to the confession, Stinney (90 lbs, 5’1″) wanted to “have sex with” Betty and could not do so until her companion, Mary was removed from the scene; thus he decided to kill Mary Emma. When he went to kill Mary, both girls “fought back” and he decided to kill Betty, 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. Jones describes the town’s mood as grief, transformed in the span of a few hours into seething anger, with the murders raising racially and politically charged tension. Townsmen threatened to storm the local jail to lynch Stinney, but prior to this, he had been removed to Charleston by law enforcement. Stinney’s father was fired from his job at the local lumber mill and the Stinney family left town during the night in fear for their lives.
The trial took place on April 24 at the Clarendon County Courthouse. 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. The jury returned a guilty verdict and 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. The execution was carried out at the South Carolina State Penitentiary in Columbia, South Carolina, on June 16, 1944. At 7:30 p.m., Stinney walked to the execution chamber with a Bible under his arm. Standing 5’1″ and weighing just over 90 pounds, he was small for his age, which presented difficulties in securing him to the frame holding the electrodes. Neither did the state’s adult-sized face-mask fit Stinney; his convulsing exposed his face to witnesses as the mask slipped free, “revealing his wide-open, tearful eyes and saliva coming from his mouth ". After two more jolts of electricity, the boy was dead. Stinney was declared dead within four minutes of the initial electrocution. From the time of the murders until Stinney’s execution, eighty one days had passed.
Attorney Steve McKenzie is determined to prove Stinney was innocent and is calling Claredon County district attorney in South Carolina to reopen the case. He has no doubt this case was an injustice. “You can’t try a [general session-level] case in two hours,” McKenzie explained. Plowden “would have had an ethical obligation to appeal the case. He would have had an ethical obligation, also, to cross-examine the witnesses but he didn’t do either one of those.”
“The defense attorney obviously didn’t even know what he was — he wasn’t a criminal lawyer, he was just someone that was appointed. He argued that you couldn’t execute George Stinney because he was 14. Well, the age was 14 for an adult at the time. So, he argued actually the wrong argument in his closing statement.”
McKenzie said that the lack of preserved evidence made clearing Stinney’s name difficult, but he hoped that the affidavits of three new witnesses, one of which could provide an alibi, would be enough to re-open the case.“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,” he added. “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.” He added that there is nothing to indicate guilt and that, in a town where whites and blacks were separated by the railroad tracks, Stinney did not stand a chance in a case involving two white girls with an all-white jury. He believes, however, the complete lack of evidence will exonerate Stinney of the murders once and for all.
Activist George Frierson, who is also from Alcolu, said that he had come across the case about five and a half years ago while doing black historical research and has been fascinated ever since. “The fact that he was 14 just astounds me,” Frierson told Raw Story. “I’m a military veteran and I always tell people that the two things that we protect is our elders and our children. And to have this happen to a 14-year-old child, it was appalling.”
“I was born in Alcolu, where he was living at the time of this incident, and it always has been talked about in the community. In fact, 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.”
He added that the rumored culprit had come from a well-known, prominent white family. Another member of that same family had served on the coroner’s inquest jury which recommend that Stinney be prosecuted. Frierson hopes that clearing Stinney’s name would make people think twice in other death penalty cases like that of Troy Davis, who was recently executed by the state of Georgia. Since his conviction, seven of the nine people who testified against him had recanted or changed their testimonies.
“I have a problem with the death penalty because it is irreversible,” Frierson said. “You find out later that someone actually was innocent then you go and say we’re going to settle a wrongful death lawsuit. What does that do for the victim? Nothing. It doesn’t do anything for them.” If Stinney’s name is cleared, it won’t be the first time the state of South Carolina has learned that the it put the wrong person to death. In 2009, the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services unanimously pardoned Thomas Griffin and Meeks Griffin for the 1913 murder of John Q. Lewis, a former Confederate Army veteran.
Charles Stinney, the brother of George Junius, who is 79 and now pastor at Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in Brooklyn, said he can still remember how George would play with all of the kids nearby and sing songs. "We were very close," Stinney said of the two's relationship. "One time, we almost looked like twins because we were about the same size at the time." When the two girls went missing, Charles said that his father, along with other men from the area, helped search for them into the night. The next
morning when men came and removed George and his brother from the Stinney home, along with other boys in the area, Charles was at the hairdresser with his
sister. His mother was the only member of his family to see George before he was executed.
Charles said he is aware of efforts to clear his brother's name by South Carolina activists and attorneys, but still has mixed feelings about re-opening the case. "George already paid with his life and nothing will...even if they take it off the state's official records it will still not bring him back," he said.