The trial and execution of George Stinney jr
On the 16th of June, 1944 a 14 year old black boy by the name of George Junius Stinney Jr was executed for the murders of two white girls, Betty June Binnicker (aged 11) and Mary Emma Thames (aged 7). Stinney was the youngest American to be executed since Hannah Ocuish in 1786.
His hometown of Alcolu in North Carolina was a typical small town for the time – segregated through and through with very limited interaction between blacks and whites.
On the 22nd of March, 1944, the two young girls, Binnicker and Thames, went out together and failed to return home. Police were called and thew following day, after thorough searching of the area, both their bodies were discovered in the African-American side of town. Binnicker was said to have died of head trauma.
Betty June and Mary had gone out looking for ‘Maypops’ (a local name for passion flowers). They were last seen outside George Stinney’s home when the girls stopped to ask Stinney and his sister Aime if they knew where to find the flowers.
After discovering the bodies of the two girls, investigators promptly arrested George and Jon Stinney for the murders, although Jon was later released without charge. While in custody, George Stinney was starved into confessing to the murders and then lead the the investigators to an iron bar in a ditch, which was designated the supposed murder weapon. No attention was paid to his sister Aime’s assertions that George could not have committed the murders, due to the fact he was with her at the time. Other testimonies as to Stinney’s whereabouts had also been ignored and no record of them exists.
The investigation had taken less than 24 hours to make an arrest. Stinney was a prime candidate both due to the girls being placed outside his home before their deaths, and also due to his previous record. The record showed him to be a bully in school – in one incident he had allegedly hurt a girl in school by scraping her with a knife. Some of George’s neighbours supported these claims, with some also claiming that the previous day he had made death threats against them.
George Stinney, a 14 year old boy, was interred in Columbia jail for 81 days without any support. During this time he had not been permitted to see his parents, or an attorney – a right which was guaranteed to him under the 6th amendment of the American constitution, which states that everyone is guaranteed legal counsel. As an aside, this wouldn’t be considered until the Supreme Court ruled explicitly that every accused person must have legal counsel during criminal proceedings in the ruling of Gideon V Wainwright in 1963.
George Stinney’s case went to trial after 81 days of confinement. He was represented by his court appointed counsel Charles Plowden, a tax commissioner campaigning for election for local office. Plowden had failed to challenge the three police officers that testified that Stinney had confessed to the murders. Stinney was found guilty of the murders of both Binnicker and Thames.
Post-mortem examinations had found that Thames had not been sexually assaulted. There was controversy over whether Binnicker had been sexually assaulted – the autopsy found light bruising on her genitalia but her hymen remained intact. The prosecution hypothesised that George Stinney had killed Thames in order to sexually assault Binnicker, afterwards killing her with blunt force trauma to the rear of the skull. The proceedings – including the decision of the jury – took less than a day. Stinney was convicted of both murders and sentenced to death. This sentence was passed despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking him to the murders, that all three testimonies offered by the police officers were all different (one claiming Stinney killed the girls in self-defence, another claiming he killed them as part of an attempted rape, and one that it was just outright murder). In the two and a half hours of court proceedings Stinney’s defence counsel called no witnesses, made no challenges, and made no appeal against the court’s decision.
No blacks attended the trial, which was typical of a segregated town in 1944. All of the members of the jury were white – most black people in the state did not have the right to vote. Stinney was only permitted to see his parents once between the time of his arrest and his execution. His distraught parents were forbidden to see him again under threat of lynching.
Several calls for clememcy where made to the state governor Olin D. Johnston due to the age of the boy but many more demanded the execution be carried out. Johnstone wrote back to one of clemency pleas, stating that he would extend no clemency due to horrific natures of the crime. Johnston was referring to the rumour that Stinney had killed Thames in order to rape Binnicker. Some accounts stated that after murdering Binnicker, he had raped her dead body and then had returned to the scene 20 minutes later intending to do so again but the body was too cold. This rumour was perpetuated despite the post-mortem indicating otherwise.
At 7:30 pm, on the 16th of June, 1944, George Junius Stinney was executed via the electric chair. His father was only allowed to approach to say his final goodbyes to his son. Due to George’s small stature, a Bible had been used as a booster seat. Despite this, the face coverings did not fit him and slipped off during the execution, revealing his terrified and tear-stained face.
Stinney’s family had lost their jobs, their company housing and their son.
It wasn’t until 2004 that a local Alcohu historian named George Frierson started researching the case after reading a newspaper article about it. He was eventually joined by South Carolina lawyers – Steve McKenzie and Matt Burgess – and many others, who together invested countless hours into researching the case. After reviewing case files and historical documents and talking to witnesses they collaborated with the Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) who filed an amicus brief with the courts in 2014. At first Frierson and pro bono lawyers sought a pardon through the parole board of South Carolina, but in 2013 they sought a new trial on October the 25th of that year.
Frierson stated that he was told by a family member that the true perpetrator of the murders had confessed on his death bed. On top of this, the confessor had in fact served on the original coroner’s inquest board, which had recommended that Stinney be convicted. He also brought to light other previously unheard testimonies, including that of Stinney’s sister Aime, and that of his cellmate Wilford “Johnny” Hunter, who stated that Stinney had told him he had been forced to confess while in police custody and always maintained his innocence. Another testimony came from Reverend Francis Batson, who found the bodies and said that there was a lack of blood at the scene, leading him to believe that the girls were killed elsewhere and their bodies afterwards moved.
In December 2014 a new trial had not been approved by Judge Carmen Mullen, who instead vacated Stinney’s conviction on the grounds that the evidence was inadmissible and ruled that he received an unfair trial and that his rights had been violated. She also found that the sentence was cruel and unusual, and that his legal counsel’s failure to call witnesses, to appeal and also to challenge the police’s testimonies was another failure to protect Stinney’s rights. Judge Mullen stated that Stinney; “…may well have committed this crime, but no one can justify a 14 year old child charged, tried, convicted and executed in some 80 days. In essence, not much was done for this child when his life lay in the balance.”
Thames’ and Binnickers’ families expressed disappointment with the court’s ruling. Despite agreeing that the execution of a 14 year old is controversial, they stated that they always believed that he was guilty, claiming that those who read articles about the case “don’t know the truth”. They also stated that the police officer who had arrested Stinney had contacted Binnicker’s niece, telling her; “Don’t you ever believe that boy didn’t kill your aunt.” Both families also contest the claim of a deathbed confession of the individual who claimed to be responsible for the murders, as this has never been substantiated.
What truly happened to Thames and Binnicker will no doubt never be known, but the death of three children is a tragedy no matter the circumstances. George Stinney’s detainment, trial, and conviction remain harrowing examples of the treatment of black Americans by a white police and court system.