A tragic event occurred in the state of South Carolina in 1944, which resulted in the death of George Stinney Jr., a 14-year-old African American youth. This heartbreaking incident left a lasting mark on history when he was convicted for the heinous mu*rder of two young girls, Mary Emma Thames and Betty June Binnicker. Mary and Betty’s lifeless bodies were discovered within the confines of a shallow trench adjacent to the railway tracks. It is worth noting that the residents of Alcolu, where this horrific event occurred, were shocked by the shocking discovery, as their community had been actively searching for the missing girls in the days preceding the grim discovery.
Tragically, both Mary and Betty were brutally beaten, resulting in skull fractures, while they were engaged in the innocent act of collecting flowers. Their lives were cruelly taken away by a railroad spike, a weapon of violence that inflicted significant blunt force trauma. The spike itself was discovered close to their lifeless forms.
Young George Stinney Jr.’s innocent persona was irreversibly altered as his proximity to the crime scene cast a suspicious shadow on him. Stinney’s presence near the site where the girls’ bodies were discovered made him a prime suspect in the eyes of the investigators. It was said that Mary, Betty, and Stinney’s paths crossed when they stopped their bike rides together to ask Stinney and his sister, Aime, about the location of yellow maypops. Notably, the region’s local term for passionflowers was “maypop.”
This was the final meeting between the girls and the young Stinney before their tragic demise. The subsequent discovery of their lifeless bodies added to Stinney’s suspicions, as he was one of the last people to have seen them alive. According to eyewitness accounts, Stinney and his sister were with the girls, gathering wild blossoms. Stinney’s sister, however, maintained an alibi, claiming that her brother had been with her at the time of the girls’ disappearance, tending to their father’s cattle.
Stinney and his brother were arrested right away, but his brother’s subsequent release shifted the spotlight solely on him. Surprisingly, Stinney was questioned by police without the presence of his parents. Despite the authorities’ claims of a confession, fellow inmates attested to his continued denials of guilt.
It is important to note, however, that no written confession was obtained, and no tangible evidence linked Stinney to the heinous crime. Even during the interrogation, Stinney maintained a composed, respectful, and courteous demeanor, projecting an air of calm amidst the chaos.
In a 1944 wire service article, a Sheriff claimed that Stinney, known as “George Junius,” confessed, leading the officers to a hidden piece of iron.
Stinney’s mother was allowed to see her son several weeks after his arrest. During this touching encounter, Stinney expressed his deep fear while emphatically denying any involvement in the alleged wrongdoing. Tragically, this touching moment would be the last time she would see her beloved son. Official records pertaining to his trial and conviction were elusive. Her next encounter with her son occurred under solemn circumstances, when she was invited to claim his lifeless body following his execution.
The Judicial Proceedings:
George Stinney Jr. (third from left) enters the death house at the state prison in Columbia, South Carolina. The wheels of justice began to turn, and Stinney was summoned to stand trial for the heinous mur*der of the two young girls. Stinney was found guilty in front of an all-white jury, his fate sealed in a matter of minutes. Regrettably, no transcript of the brief trial was preserved, and the jury had only ten minutes to decide the tragic fate of the young boy. Any chance of an appeal was effectively eliminated.
Following a two-hour trial, a sentence was swiftly imposed, culminating in a chilling proclamation: “…to be electrocuted until your physical form is devoid of life, in accordance with the dictates of the law.” This solemn decree was accompanied by a prayer for divine mercy.
Stinney’s legal representation was handled by a white defense attorney appointed by the court. Unfortunately, this attorney’s strategy failed to present evidence or call witnesses in defense of his young client.
Notably, the courtroom took an exclusionary stance, barring people of African descent from entering. Despite a lack of conclusive evidence linking Stinney to the crime, he was sentenced to death by electric chair, a verdict tainted by a lack of due process.
Stinney was imprisoned for 81 days before his life was taken, during which time he had only limited contact with his parents. Stinney’s petite frame, measuring 5 feet and 1 inch and weighing 95 pounds, eventually led to an electric chair designed for adults at the Columbian Penitentiary. Despite the chair’s restraints, which had been adjusted to accommodate larger people, books were strategically placed to account for Stinney’s small stature.
Stinney’s form convulsed as the switch was flipped, as witnessed by a crowd of about 40 people. Tragically, at the age of 14, this young soul became the youngest person to face execution in the United States during the twentieth century.
A Reexamination of George Stinney’s Case:
Several decades later, questions were raised about the authenticity of Stinney’s confession, his guilt, and the fairness of the judicial proceedings that led to his execution. Over the years, there have been numerous calls for the case to be reopened, motivated by a variety of flaws and perceived injustices.
Stinney’s family endured significant hardships as a result of his arrest and the tumultuous events that followed. Because of the community’s reaction to his trial and subsequent death, his family was forced to flee Alcolu, a town they never returned to. Following Stinney’s arrest, his father faced professional ramifications, including the loss of his job at a local lumber yard. Evicted from their home, the family was compelled to depart town abruptly, devoid even of the opportunity to pack their belongings.
Though the past could not be rewritten, Stinney’s family fervently pursued the exoneration of his name. In 2013, the family embarked on a quest for a fresh trial.
Seventy years after the conviction, a glimmer of justice emerged:
During her testimony, Katherine Robinson, one of Stinney’s sisters, recalls the day of his arrest. A watershed moment occurred in 2014, when a South Carolina judge overturned Stinney’s mu*rder conviction, resulting in his exoneration. Stinney’s legal counsel, according to Judge Carmen Mullen, had not adequately cross-examined his accusers. Furthermore, the lack of witnesses highlighted the problematic nature of the proceedings.
Stinney’s sister, Amie Rufner, witnessed his presence at their family home at the time of the girls’ tragic death. This compelling testimony threw serious doubt on his involvement in their mu*rder.
Stinney’s fellow inmate, Wilford “Johnny” Hunter, revealed Stinney’s steadfast denial of the crime. Stinney’s moving words, “Johnny, I didn’t, I didn’t do it… “Why would they execute me for something I didn’t do?” echoed the desperation of a helpless soul facing a terrible fate.
Stinney’s sentence was ultimately declared cruel and unusual by Judge Carmen Mullen, who acknowledged a violation of the victim’s due process rights throughout the prosecution. The trial had flaws, including the coerced nature of Stinney’s confession, which rendered it inadmissible. Furthermore, the prosecution failed to protect Stinney’s constitutional rights from the time he was arrested until his tragic death by electrocution.