Long before there were “die ins,” overturned police cars, and arson committed during riots, long before there was police surveillance and crowds chanting “burn this b**** down,” there was the conviction and subsequent execution of George Stinney, a 14-year-old boy charged in the deaths of two young South Carolina girls.
Young Stinney, who was African American, was executed in that state’s electric chair less than three months after his conviction on the murder charges against the two white girls. His trial lasted less than three hours, and a jury of 12 white male jurors took only 10 minutes to hand down a verdict of “guilty.” He was only 95 pounds, too small for the standardized equipment of the electrocution chamber.
When electrocuted, the boy had to be placed on books, as he was too short for the electric chair. Because the death mask on his face was too large, it fell from his face when the switch was thrown and the 2,400 volts of electricity jolted into his body.
Seventy years after his death, George Stinney Jr. got justice of sorts when his conviction for the killing of two young white girls was vacated by South Carolina Judge Carmen Mullins on Wednesday morning.
Advocates for civil rights have spent years trying to get the case opened back up again because of claims that the young Stinney had been coerced to make a confession. Investigators told the court that Stinney had confessed to beating the young girls to death with a railroad spike. But that wasn’t true, Stinney’s sister said. She claims that Stinney was with her the day that the murders occurred, and he could not have done it.
There was no physical evidence presented at the trial, and his guilt was based on the fact that he and his sister had spoken with the two girls, 11-year-old Betty June Binniker and 8-year-old Mary Emma Thames, the day of their murder. Stinney’s sister said that she and her brother saw the girls briefly when they were tending their cow near the railroad tracks. The girls had asked the two where they could find “Maypops,” their cow. When the brother and sister said they didn’t know, the girls left, according to Stinney’s sister.
The girl’s bodies were discovered in a ditch on the “black side of town.” But, Reverend Francis Batson, the man who discovered the bodies, told investigators that the ditch where they were found had very little blood suggesting that the girls were killed elsewhere and dumped at that location.
Stinney’s alleged confession has never been found after all these years. In the short time in prison before his execution, he confided in a fellow prisoner, Wilford “Johnny” Hunter, that the police made him admit to the murders.
The appeal focused on the brevity of the original trial – only two hours elapsed between the beginning of the trial and the imposition of the death penalty, and Stinney’s white, court-appointed attorney apparently offered no defense – and the fact that no evidence or even a transcript of the case could be found. The only apparent evidence against Stinney was a confession obtained by a white police officer without any parent or guardian present.
At age 14, Stinney was the youngest person to be executed in the United States in the 20th century. There was no public outcry or rioting, no one to plead for the child George Stinney. Seventy years later, may his family find peace.
[image by South Carolina Police]