Stinney's mug shot
|Born||George Junius Stinney, Jr.
October 21, 1929
Alcolu, South Carolina, United States
|Died||June 16, 1944
Columbia, South Carolina, United States
|Death by electric chair|
|Conviction(s)||First-degree murder (vacated)|
Stinney, an African-American youth from South Carolina, was convicted in a two-hour trial of the first-degree murder of two pre-teen white girls: 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker, and 8-year-old Mary Emma Thames. However, no physical evidence existed in the case, and the sole evidence against Stinney was the circumstantial fact that the girls had spoken with Stinney and his sister shortly before their murder, and the testimony of three police officers that Stinney had confessed. He was executed by electric chair.
Since Stinney's conviction and execution, the question of his guilt, the validity of his confession, and the judicial process leading to his execution have been criticized as "suspicious at best and a miscarriage of justice at worst."
Stinney was arrested on suspicion of murdering two girls, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 8, in Alcolu, Clarendon County, South Carolina, on March 23, 1944. Alcolu was a small, working class mill town, where white and black neighborhoods were separated by railroad tracks. 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, Katherine, if they knew where to find "maypops", a local name for passionflowers. 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 extensive blunt force trauma to the face and head. According to a report compiled by the medical examiner, these wounds had been "inflicted by a blunt instrument with a round head, about the size of a hammer." In addition, the genitalia of the older girl had been bruised.
Following Stinney's arrest, Stinney's father was fired from his job, and his family was forced to flee the town under threat of being lynched, leaving George with no support during his 81-day confinement and trial. The entire trial, including jury selection, took one day. Stinney's court-appointed defense counsel was a tax commissioner campaigning for election to local political office. Stinney's lawyer did not challenge the three police officers who testified Stinney confessed to the two murders, despite this being the only evidence against him. The police did not make written records of Stinney's purported confession, and at trial, Stinney denied confessing to the crime.
Stinney's trial had an all-white jury due to black people being denied the right to vote, which was required for them to serve as jurors, who were called up from the voters' rolls. Other than the testimony of the three police officers, at trial prosecutors called three inconsequential witnesses: the man who discovered the bodies of the two girls and the two doctors who performed the post-mortem examination. Stinney's counsel did not call any witnesses. Trial presentation lasted two and a half hours. The jury took ten minutes to deliberate, after which they returned with a guilty verdict.
The execution of George Stinney was carried out at Central Correctional Institution in Columbia on June 16, 1944. At 7:30 p.m., Stinney walked to the execution chamber with a Bible under his arm, which he later used as a booster seat in the electric chair. Standing 5 feet 1 inch (155 cm) tall and weighing just over 90 pounds (40 kg), his size (relative to adult prisoners) presented difficulties in securing him to the frame holding the electrodes. Also, 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, "revealing his wide-open, tearful eyes and saliva coming from his mouth...After two more jolts of electricity, the boy was dead. During the execution, the surges of electricity made Stinney's body shake, and his left hand broke free from the buckle holding him down." Stinney was declared dead within four minutes of the initial electrocution. From the time of the murders until Stinney's execution, 81 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, and his work gained the attention of South Carolina lawyers Steve McKenzie and Matt Burgess.
McKenzie and Burgess, along with lawyer Ray Chandler, 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 that "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.
On December 17, 2014, Stinney's conviction was vacated by circuit court judge Carmen Mullen, who cited that as the youth had not received any kind of defense at his trial, his Sixth Amendment rights 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.
Family members of both Betty Binnicker and Mary Thames have expressed disappointment at the ruling, stating that, although the issue of his being executed at the age of 14 is controversial, they have never had reason to doubt his guilt. The niece of Betty Binnicker has stated 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 has also stated that, in the early 1990s, a police officer who had arrested Stinney had contacted her, clasped his hands upon her shoulders and informed her: "Don't you ever believe that boy didn't kill your aunt." Moreover, these family members have stated 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, the son of Ernest A. Finney, Jr., South Carolina's first African-American State Supreme Court justice since Reconstruction.
Books and films about Stinney's case
The case was the basis for the novel Carolina Skeletons (1988) by David Stout, who was subsequently 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 centers around a fictitious nephew of Stinney/Bragg, who unravels the truth about the case decades later and learns, on the way, of the brighter and darker sides of Stinney's/Bragg's town.
The novel was adapted into a film of the same name directed by John Erman, featuring Kenny Blank as Stinney/Bragg. Lou Gossett, Jr. played Stinney's/Bragg's younger brother James, who takes over the role occupied by the nephew in the novel. In 1991 Blank received a Young Artist Award nomination for Best Young Actor in a Television Movie for his portrayal of Stinney/Bragg.
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- Maxwell, Zerlina (September 28, 2011). "Was the youngest person to be executed in the U.S. for the murder of two white girls innocent?". The Grio, NBC News. Retrieved June 24, 2012.
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- South Carolina judge tosses conviction of black teen executed in 1944
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- The Independent. Jan. 22, 2014.
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- Fox19 Dec. 17, 2014
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- Berkeley Observer.com
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- Carolina Skeletons at the Internet Movie Database
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- O'Connor, John J. (30 September 1991). "Reopening the wounds of an old murder case". The New York Times. p. C16. Retrieved 28 February 2010.
- Brinson, Ron (January 24, 2014). "George Stinney trial is a reminder of justice not served". The Post and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina). Retrieved December 17, 2014.
- Pompi, Jenni (June 26, 2012). "Bowie's Pleroma Studios Launches New Film Project". Bowie Patch (Bowie, Maryland). Retrieved December 17, 2014.
- Braswell, Kristin (28 February 2014). "Film to Explore George Stinney, Jr. Execution". Ebony. Retrieved 19 December 2014.