George Junius Stinney Jr.
George Junius Stinney Jr.
October 21, 1929
|Died||June 16, 1944 (aged 14)|
Columbia, South Carolina, U.S.
|Cause of death||Execution by electrocution|
|Resting place||Calvary Baptist Church Cemetery|
Paxville, South Carolina, U.S.
|Conviction(s)||Murder (posthumously overturned)|
George Junius Stinney Jr. (October 21, 1929 – June 16, 1944), was an African American boy who at the age of 14 was wrongfully convicted, in a proceeding later vacated as an unfair trial in 2014, of murdering two white girls, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 7, in his hometown of Alcolu, South Carolina. He was executed by electric chair in June 1944, thus becoming the youngest American with an exact birth date confirmed to be sentenced to death and executed in the 20th century.
A re-examination of Stinney's case began in 2004, and several individuals and the Northeastern University School of Law sought a judicial review. Stinney's conviction was overturned in 2014, seventy years after he was executed, when a court ruled that he had not received a fair trial, effectively clearing his name.
|Murder of Betty Binnicker and Mary Thames|
|Location||Alcolu, South Carolina, U.S.|
|Date||March 22, 1944|
|Weapon||Inconclusive; possibly a piece of blunt metal or a railroad spike|
|Victims||2 (Betty June Binnicker, aged 11|
Mary Emma Thames, aged 7)
|Accused||George Burke Jr. (died 1947)|
|Verdict||Guilty (posthumously overturned)|
|Convictions||George Junius Stinney Jr.:|
Murder (1944; posthumously overturned in 2014)
On March 23, 1944, the bodies of two young girls, Betty June Binnicker (1933–1944) and Mary Emma Thames were discovered in Alcolu, South Carolina. The girls had gone missing the day before, as they never returned home the previous night. Binnicker and Thames both suffered severe blunt force trauma, resulting in penetration of both of the girls skulls.
In 1944, George Stinney lived in Alcolu, South Carolina, with his father, George Stinney Sr. (1902-1965), mother Aimé (1907-1989), brothers John, 17, and Charles, 12, and sisters Katherine, 10, and Aimé, 7. Stinney's father worked at the town's sawmill, and the family resided in company housing. 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. Given segregated schools and churches for white and black residents, there was limited interaction between them.
The bodies of Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames were found in a ditch on March 23, 1944, after failing to return home the night before. The bodies were discovered on the African-American side of Alcolu. Stinney's father helped in the search. The girls had been beaten with a 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 Stinneys' property, they had asked Stinney and his sister, Aimé, if they knew where to find "maypops", a local name for passionflowers. According to Aimé, she was with Stinney at the time the police later established for the murders. 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 of "George Junius" and stated that the boy 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 medical examiner reported no evidence of sexual assault to the younger girl, though the genitalia of the older girl was slightly bruised. Both girls' hymens remained intact at the time of the autopsies.
George Stinney, Jr. and his older brother John were arrested on suspicion of murdering the girls. John was released by police, but George was held in custody. He was not allowed to see his parents until after his trial and conviction. According to a handwritten statement, Stinney's 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 where he said he put it in a ditch about six feet from the bicycle." No confession statement signed by Stinney is known to exist. The 14-year-old later claimed that the arresting officers starved him and then bribed him with food to confess.
Stinney 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 African American, was disputed by Aimé Stinney Ruffner, when it was reported in 1995. A local white woman who remembered Stinney from childhood claimed in 2014 that he had threatened to kill her and a friend the day before the murder, and that he was known as a bully.
Following Stinney's arrest, his father was fired from his job at the local sawmill, and the Stinney family had to immediately vacate their company housing. The family feared for their safety. Stinney's parents did not see him again before the trial. He had no support during his 81-day confinement and trial; he was detained at a jail in Columbia, fifty miles from Alcolu, due to the risk of lynching. Stinney was questioned alone, without his parents or an attorney. Although the Sixth Amendment guarantees legal counsel, this was not routinely observed until the United States Supreme Court's 1963 ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright that explicitly required representation through the course of criminal proceedings.
The entire proceeding against Stinney, including jury selection, took one day. Stinney's court-appointed counsel was Charles Plowden, a tax commissioner campaigning for election to local office. Plowden did not challenge the three police officers who testified that Stinney confessed to the two murders. He also did not challenge the prosecution's presentation of two differing 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 is no written record of Stinney's confession apart from Deputy Newman's statement.
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. The court allowed discussion of the "possibility" of rape due to bruising on Binnicker's genitalia. Stinney's counsel did not call any witnesses, did not cross-examine witnesses, and offered little or no defense. The trial presentation lasted two and a half hours.
More than 1,000 whites crowded the courtroom, but no blacks were allowed. As was typical at the time, Stinney was tried before an all-white jury (in 1944 most African-Americans in the South were prohibited from voting and therefore ineligible to serve on juries). After deliberating for fewer than ten minutes, the jury found Stinney guilty of both murders. Judge Philip H. Stoll sentenced Stinney to death by electrocution. There is no transcript of the trial and no appeal was filed by Stinney's counsel.
Stinney's family, churches, and the NAACP appealed to Governor Olin D. Johnston for clemency, given the age of the boy. Others urged the governor to let the execution proceed, which he did. Johnston wrote a response to one appeal for clemency, but the autopsy proved the allegations therein to be false:
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.
Between the time of Stinney's arrest and his execution, his parents were allowed to see him once after the trial, when he was held in the Columbia penitentiary. Under the threat of lynching, they were not allowed to see him any other time.
Stinney was executed on June 16, 1944, at 7:30 p.m. He was prepared for execution by electric chair, using a Bible as a booster seat because Stinney was too small for the chair. He was then restrained by his arms, legs, and body to the chair. His father was only allowed to approach the electric chair to say his final words to his son, and an officer asked George if he had any last words to say before the execution took place, but he only shook his head. The executioner pulled a strap from the chair and placed it over George's mouth, causing him to break into tears, and he then placed the face mask over his face, which did not fit him as he continued sobbing. When the lethal electricity was applied, the mask covering slipped off, revealing tears streaming down Stinney's face. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Crowley.
Reopening of case and vacatur of conviction
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, and found witnesses and evidence to assist in exonerating Stinney. Among those who aided the case were the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) at the Northeastern University School of Law, which 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 attorney 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
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 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. 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., who was appointed as South Carolina's first African-American State Supreme Court justice since Reconstruction.
Rather than approving a new trial, on December 16, 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 rights had been violated. The ruling was a rare use of the legal remedy 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", and that his attorney "failed to call exculpating witnesses or to preserve his right of appeal." 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 court's ruling. They said that although they acknowledge Stinney's execution at the age of 14 is controversial, they never doubted his guilt. Binnicker's niece claimed 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." She alleges 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 contend that the claims of a deathbed confession from an individual confessing to the girls' murders have never been substantiated. Since Stinney's exoneration, George Burke Jr., the son of a wealthy white businessman, George Burke Sr., has been the subject of speculation as a possible suspect for the murders. Burke died at the age of 29 in 1947.
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 Award for Best First Novel (Edgar Allan Poe Award). Stout suggests in the novel that Stinney, whom he renames Linus Bragg, was innocent. The plot revolves around a fictitious brother of Stinney/Bragg, who unravels the truth about the case decades later. The novel was adapted as a 1991 television movie 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.
- The 1993 novel Billy by Albert French was inspired by these events.
- In February 2014, another movie about the Stinney case, 83 Days, was announced by Pleroma Studios, written and produced by Ray Brown with Charles Burnett slated to direct. The film was released in 2018 with Andrew Paul Howell as director.
- An opera, Stinney, was written in 2015 by Frances Pollock, who had just earned her master's degree at Peabody Institute. It was performed to a full house at 2640 Space in Baltimore MD the same year. Several cousins of George Stinney from Baltimore and other parts of Maryland attended opening night.
- Karyn Parsons' How High the Moon has a subplot where a friend of the main character is framed for murdering two white girls, similarly to the George Stinney case.
- Jericho Brown's 2021 poem "Inaugural" makes reference to Stinney's execution.
- Nia DaCosta's 2021 film Candyman feature Stinney in a cameo as one of the souls trapped in the Candyman "hive": in his Candyman form, Stinney rides a bicycle with his hand in a hook. Stinney was previously featured in DaCosta's 2020 promotional short film of the same name, his death and resurrection depicted in the form of shadow puppetry.
- List of people executed in South Carolina
- List of wrongful convictions in the United States
- Hannah Ocuish, twelve-year-old girl believed to be the youngest person to be executed in the United States
- Wrongful executions in the United States
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- Smith, Tim. "Bold, eclectic 'Stinney,' new opera about 1944 execution of teen, delivers jolt". baltimoresun.com. Retrieved April 1, 2021.
- How High The Moon Karyn Parsons
- Dessem, Matthew (June 18, 2020). "This Haunting Short Film About Real-Life Racist Killings Is Also a Trailer for Candyman". Slate. Retrieved June 18, 2020.
- South Carolina v. George Stinney, Jr., S. C. Circuit Ct. (Dec. 16, 2014)(order vacating 1944 judgment of conviction)
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