The injustices of the United States criminal justice system, rooted in a deep and bitter history of racial conflict, are best understood from the story of George Stinney Jr. It is a story that rouses anger and frustration at a system so heartless that it killed a 14-year-old in a case that was fraught with unbelievable irregularities. George Stinney died because he was poor and black at a time when being white meant one was right and being black meant one was wrong. It is a story that highlights the absurdities of the American criminal justice system. It is this system that still finds it extremely difficult to extricate itself from racial biases and prejudices.
On 16 June 1944, George Stinney Jr was sentenced to death by electrocution by a South Carolina judge after he had been accused of murdering two white girls in Clarendon County. In 2014, the 1944 proceedings were vacated by another judge as an unfair trial, thus clearing Stinney’s name. Stinney was accused of murdering Betty June Binnicker (11) and Mary Emma Thames (7) in his hometown of Alcolu, South Carolina. He was tried and electrocuted in just 83 days and became the youngest American to be sentenced to death in the 20th century. The re-examination and research of his case commenced in 2004, and in 2014 his conviction was overturned after the judge, considering all the historical evidence placed before her, ruled that Stinney had received an unfair trial that violated fundamental Constitutional provisions.
The American South of 1944 was characterized by a deliberate racial hierarchical order which was prejudicial to black people. Alcolu in Clarendon County was divided into the “white side” and the “black side” by a railway track. The events that happened in March 1944, driven by this racial separation, have lived on to this day – as contemporary American society grapples with the elusive concept of racial equality.
Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames were found dead in a ditch side by side on March 23, 1944. The two murders astounded the townspeople, who had never witnessed such horrific and sadistic violence inflicted on young innocent girls. The segregated mill town was thrown into turmoil as they tried to come to terms with such a tragedy. And that turmoil would translate into raw, uncut, and unfiltered racial biases.
The Events of the Tragedy
Sharing a bicycle, the girls had set out to look for ‘maypops’ (local name for passionflowers). The two girls followed the railroad tracks in their quest for the flowers and passed through the lumber mill where almost everyone in Alcolu worked, including their fathers. They saw two children ahead – who were black – and asked them where to find maypops. George Stinney (who was a seventh-grader) had taken out his family’s cows to graze with his little sister, Aime. George and Aime responded to the two girls that they had no idea about where to find maypops. The girls continued with their journey.
What happened after the girls continued with their journey would change Alcolu forever. Because after the girls had gone missing, and later found dead, suspicion quickly befell George Stinney Jr, simply because he had conversed with the girls prior to their disappearance. Two versions of the story surfaced. The one that George would die for was that he followed the girls and by his own will and power, bludgeoned both of them to death with a railroad spike.
The other version whispered in hushed tones in Alcolu up to this day, was that the girls also stopped at the home of an influential white family to see if the wife of the lumber boss would join them. Her son drove up in his logging truck and offered to assist the girls to look for maypops. The girls jumped in the truck. But the police did not bother to get to the bottom of the story – all they wanted was a black killer. This was aggravated because police said that George had confessed to the heinous crime.
The bodies of the girls were found on the African-American side of the milling town. The townspeople had formed a search party the day before the girls’ bodies were found (George joined the search party and casually told a bystander that he had previously seen the girls). Aime said that when the police later established the murders, she was with George.
When the bodies were discovered in the ditch, it was evident that the girls had met horrible, cruel, and violent deaths. Dr. Asbury Cecil Bozard, one of the two doctors who examined the bodies, revealed that the girls had been attacked and beaten with such force that their skulls were fractured. They suffered blunt force trauma to the face and head. Betty June’s back skull was “nothing but a mass of crushed bones,” according to the doctor.
He said that the wounds had been inflicted by “a blunt instrument with a round head, about the size of a hammer.” The skulls of both girls were punctured. Although the genitalia of the older girl was slightly bruised, the doctor said that there was no evidence of sexual assault on the girls as their hymens were both intact.
- The Arrest of George Stinney Jr
George and his older brother John were arrested on suspicion of killing the two white girls. John was later released, but George was kept in custody. This was the last time that George’s family saw him – George only saw his parents after trial and conviction. His father was immediately fired from his job at the mill. Fearing the wildly menacing rumors of a mob lynching, the family escaped to Pinewood, a nearby town where their grandmother resided.
Clarendon Deputy Sheriff H.S. Newman, who was Stinney’s arresting officer, told the South Carolina newspapers that George had confessed to brutally murdering the girls. The sheriff 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.” He further added, unashamedly, that the boy had murdered the girls because the latter had refused his sexual overtures. There is no evidence of any confession statement made by Stinney. The boy later claimed that he had been starved by the arresting officers, and later bribed with food to elicit a confession from him.
There was never physical evidence of the confession, but the state proceeded to charge the 14-year-old boy with capital murder, tried, and convicted him all in the space of just 83 days. There is no transcript of the trial either. His family firmly believes that George was coerced to confess and that the way his case was handled was an outlet for the racial angst that white people felt towards black people.
Due to the ominous risk of lynching, George Stinney was held at a jail in Columbia, 50 miles from Alcolu. He was never given legal representation, being questioned alone without his parents or a lawyer. His parents only saw him once at the Columbia penitentiary after the trial.
- A Shameless, Remorseless, And Irregular Trial
What came next was a sham trial – in which all court procedures that ensure the fairness of a trial were thrown out the window remorselessly. The trial and jury selection took only one day. The jury was all-white. No African-Americans were allowed inside the courthouse and yet almost 1,500 whites crowded the room.
George Stinney’s court-appointed defence counsel, Charles Plowden, was a tax lawyer and aspiring politician who literally threw Stinney under the bus, to his death. The case was hinged on the confession statement (which was – and has – never been brought before the court); it was the only evidence against Stinney. Three police officers testified that Stinney had confessed to murdering the two girls, but Plowden did not challenge this.
The prosecution presented two divergent versions of Stinney’s confession – and Plowden, the court-appointed counsel for Stinney, failed to oppose this. In one version, Stinney was attacked by the girls after he had attempted to help one of the girls who had fallen in the ditch. Acting in self-defense, Stinney killed them.
The other version said that he had followed the girls and killed them, first attacking Mary Emma and then Betty June. There are no written records of such a confession apart from Sheriff Newton’s statement, and there was no material, physical evidence linking him to the murders.
The other testimony for the prosecution, apart from that of the police officers, came from Reverend Francis Batson (who discovered the bodies of the two girls) and the two doctors who performed the post-mortem examination. Stinney’s counsel failed to call any witnesses and did not cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses, which offered conflicting accounts of what happened. In essence, his counsel failed to mount any defence at all.
The trial did not last much – only two and a half hours – and the all-white jury of 12 men deliberated for less than ten minutes. The jury found Stinney guilty of two murders (with no recommendation for mercy) and Judge P.H Stoll sentenced Stinney to death by electrocution. Stinney’s counsel did not file any appeal.
- Appeals For Mercy
Several calls for mercy on the boy were ignored by the state’s authorities. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) tried to stop the execution, but their efforts were in vain. In an interview with The Guardian in 2014, Aime Ruffner said that her parents could not do much as poor blacks, saying that their mother would cry and pray, hoping the truth would come out. There were many protests, and both white and black ministerial leaders petitioned Governor Olin Johnston to grant George clemency (given his age) and commute his sentence to life imprisonment. Hundreds of letters and telegrams flooded the governor’s office from all over South Carolina and other states asking for mercy on George’s behalf. They were ignored.
The governor was running for the US Senate at the time and did not want to be perceived weak in matters to do with racial relations.
Two days before the execution, he wrote a letter in a response to one appeal of clemency saying: “I have just talked with the officer who made the arrest in this case. 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.” The post-mortem had already proved that there was no sexual assault done to the girls.
- The execution of George Stinney Jr By Electrocution
Stinney was executed on 16 June 1944 at 7.30 pm. The guards had difficulty strapping him into an electric chair made for adults because of his small stature – standing 5 feet 1 inch (1.54 m) tall and weighing just 95 pounds (43 kg). The Bible was used as a booster seat because Stinney was too small to fit in the electric chair. His father gave him his last words at the electric chair. George was asked to give his final words but only shook his head. When the switch was flipped on and the first 2,400 volts of lethal electricity surged through his body, the death-mask slipped off from his face, revealing tears welling down his face from his frightened and open eyes. Another charge followed, and the third one. George Stinney Jr was buried in an unmarked grave in Crowley.
- The Resuscitation of Stinney’s Unfair Trial
The interest to look into the case again came about in 2004, when George Frierson, a local historian, and a member of Clarendon's School District Three's board of trustees who grew up in Alcolu, started to research the case after a small piece about the story in a local newspaper reminded him of it. Frierson said that the more he dug into the case, the more he became convinced that George Stinney Jr was innocent. His work caught the attention of South Carolina white lawyers Steve McKenzie and Matt Burgess, from Coffey, Chandler & McKenzie, who began to work on the case for the Stinney family. Other attorneys joined too, devoting countless hours of research and review of historical documents so that Stinney could be exonerated.
McKenzie and Burgess, assisted by another attorney, Ray Chandler, filed a motion for a new trial on October 25, 2013, on behalf of Stinney’s family.
They presented new evidence before the court in January 2014 which included “sworn statements by Charles and Aime that they were with George the day the girls went missing” and that Wilfred “Johnny” Hunter (who was in prison with George) said that the teenager intimated to him that he had been made to confess. Part of the new evidence also included Reverend Francis Batson, who found the bodies of the girls in the ditch. His statement said that there was not much blood in or around the ditch, suggesting that the girls may have been killed elsewhere and moved.
- Judge Mullen Clears George Stinney’s Name In What Was “Long Overdue”
On 17 December 2014, circuit court Judge Carmen Mullen vacated Stinney’s conviction in lieu of approving a new trial. In her ruling, the judge found that “fundamental, Constitutional violations of the due process exist in the 1944 prosecution of George Stinney, Jr., and hereby vacates the judgment.” She ruled that Stinney did not receive a fair trial, as he was effectively not defended and his Sixth Amendment rights (it sets forth rights related to criminal prosecutions) had been grossly violated. Judge Mullen made reference to the inadmissibility of Stinney’s confession, which she said was likely coerced. She ruled that the execution was “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The State newspaper reported, “It took Mullen nearly four times as long to issue her ruling as it took in 1944 to go from arrest to execution.” Mullen’s decision was arrived through the usage of a rare legal remedy – a writ of ‘coram nobis’ borrowed from English law that “corrects errors of fact” when no other remedy is available to the applicant. Mullen wrote, “No one can justify a 14-year-old child charged, tried, convicted and executed in some 80 days ... In essence, not much was done for this child when his life lay in the balance.”
Stinney’s family says that the exoneration of George Stinney Jr was “long overdue.” In the interview with The Guardian, Aime said, “I never saw him again until he was in his casket. That is something I will always see in my memories. His face was burned.” Stinney’s siblings – Aime, Charles, and Katherine – grew up on the belief that George was innocent. And that the past is something which cannot be changed but can be redressed. All they wanted was for George’s name to be cleared.
The family of the two girls viciously murdered believe that George Stinney committed the crime but say that the punishment he received was too harsh for a child. They believe the confession was all that was needed to find him guilty. One of the investigating officers, Mr. Pratt, told Betty June’s niece “never to doubt George’s guilt.” When the crime happened in 1944, George was quickly labeled the meanest boy in town, and in 1995 Stinney’s seventh-grade teacher said that he had a temper and had got into a fight with a girl at school, scratching her with a knife. Aime then phoned the teacher, telling her she was lying. There were claims of a deathbed confession from an individual who confessed to killing the girls, but it was never objectively verified.
The unfairness of the American criminal justice system failed to deliver justice to the families affected – three children died, and the real culprit was never brought to book. The story of George Stinney Jr is a strong moral lesson that should inspire humankind to strive for more racial equality. Such history should be revisited with the overall aim of creating a better society for all in which human rights apply to everyone equally regardless of race or class.