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|
|Criminal penalty||Death by electric chair|
George Junius Stinney Jr. (October 21, 1929 – June 16, 1944), was a 14-year-old African-American boy who was 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.
In 1944, on March 23, the bodies of two young girls, Betty June Binnicker (1933–1944) and Mary Emma Thames, both white, were discovered in Alcolu, South Carolina. The girls had gone missing the day before, as they never returned home the previous night. Binnicker had died as the result of head trauma, her skull having been fractured.
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, it was not 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, despite this being the only evidence against him. 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 was no physical evidence linking him to the murders. 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. Conflicting confessions were reported to have been offered by the prosecution. The court allowed discussion of the "possibility" of rape although the medical examiner's report had no evidence to support this. 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 black people 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, however the autopsy proved this rumor was untrue:
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 17, 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.
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.
- 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
- List of unsolved murders
- "Threats to Lynch Negro Boy Heard". The Austin American. Austin, Texas. March 26, 1944. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
- "South Carolina Deaths, 1915–1965," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FGBH-P91 : 18 July 2017), Betty June Binniker, 24 Mar 1944; citing , Binniker, Betty June, 1944, Department of Archives and History, State Records Center, Columbia; FHL microfilm 1,943,933.
- McVeigh, Karen (March 22, 2014). "George Stinney was executed at 14. Can his family now clear his name?". The Observer. Archived from the original on March 19, 2016.
- Collins, Jeffrey (January 18, 2010). "SC crusaders look to right Jim Crow justice wrongs". Spartanburg Herald-Journal. AP. Archived from the original on May 29, 2016.
- Bever, Lindsey (December 18, 2014). "It took 10 minutes to convict 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. It took 70 years after his execution to exonerate him". Washington Post.
- "Youth Admits Killing Girls". The Milwaukee Journal. AP. March 25, 1944. Retrieved October 18, 2015.
- "State Prison Protects Negro after Slaying". St. Petersburg Times. INS. March 25, 1944. Retrieved October 18, 2015.
- Jones, Mark R. (2007). "Chapter Five: Too Young to Die: The Execution of George Stinney Jr. (1944)". South Carolina Killers: Crimes of Passion. The History Press. pp. 38–42. ISBN 978-1-59629-395-3. Retrieved November 24, 2014.
- Gaskins, Nikki (March 1, 2014). "Goose Creek woman, others hope George Stinney murder conviction sticks". Berkeley Observer. Archived from the original on March 22, 2016.
- "CRRJ Brings Justice to Youngest Person Executed in US History" (Press release). Archived from the original on January 3, 2015. Retrieved January 3, 2015.
- McLaughlin, Eliot C. (January 23, 2014). "New trial sought for George Stinney, executed at 14". CNN. Archived from the original on April 10, 2016.
- Walker, Tim (January 22, 2014). "George Stinney: After 70 years, justice in sight for boy America sent to electric chair". The Independent. Archived from the original on March 5, 2016.
- Behre, Robert (January 17, 2014). "Family and friends of 1944 murder victim wary of reopening George Stinney's death penalty case". The Post and Courier. Archived from the original on June 3, 2016.
- "He was 14 when he was executed. More than 70 years later, this boy has been exonerated". The Independent. December 18, 2014. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
- Bever, Lindsey (December 18, 2014). "It took 10 minutes to convict 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. It took 70 years after his execution to exonerate him". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
- Blinder, Alan (January 22, 2014). "Family of South Carolina Boy Put to Death Seeks Exoneration 70 Years Later". The New York Times. New York, NY. p. A14.
- Barbato, Lauren (December 17, 2014). "The Youngest Person Executed In America, George Stinney Jr., Almost Certainly Wasn't Guilty". Bustle.com.
- Braswell, Kristin (February 28, 2014). "Film to Explore George Stinney Jr. Execution". Ebony. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016.
- Edwards, David (October 3, 2011). "New evidence could clear 14-year-old executed by South Carolina". The Raw Story. Archived from the original on May 30, 2016.
- Robertson, Campbell (December 18, 2014). "South Carolina Judge Vacates Conviction of George Stinney in 1944 Execution". New York Times. Archived from the original on December 12, 2015.
- McCloud, Harriet (December 17, 2014). "South Carolina judge tosses conviction of black teen executed in 1944". Reuters. Archived from the original on December 22, 2015.
- Turnage, Jeremy (December 17, 2014). "George Stinney, 14-year-old convicted of '44 murder, exonerated". WIS. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016.
- Jaffe, Andrew (July 24, 1988). "Fried at 14, but Was He Guilty? : CAROLINA SKELETONS: by David Stout (Mysterious Press: $16.95; 305 pp.; 0-89296-264-X)". LA Times. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- "Edgar Awards for Mysteries". The New York Times. May 16, 1989. p. C18. Retrieved February 28, 2010.
- Devine, Jeremy M. (August 25, 2017). Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second: A Critical and Thematic Analysis of 360 Films About the Vietnam War. McFarland Publishing. p. 378. ISBN 9781476605357.
- O'Connor, John J. (September 30, 1991). "Review/Television; Reopening the Wounds Of an Old Murder Case". The New York Times. p. C16. Retrieved February 28, 2010.
- Brinson, Ron (January 24, 2014). "George Stinney trial is a reminder of justice not served". The Post and Courier. Evening Post Industries. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- "83 Days". Retrieved June 6, 2020.
- 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
- Blow, Charles M. (December 21, 2014). "Pursuing Justice for All". New York Times.