Over 67 years after 14-year-old George Junius Stinney Jr. was put to death by the state of South Carolina, he may soon be cleared of the crime that people familiar with the case say he never could have committed.
A lawyer and an activist both told Raw Story recently that new evidence will show that the black boy could not have possibly murdered two white girls, 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and seven-year-old Mary Emma Thames.
Stinney, the youngest person to receive the death penalty in the last 100 years, was executed on June 16, 1944. At five feet one inch and only 95 pounds, the straps of the electric chair did not fit the boy. His feet could not touch the floor. As he was hit with the first 2,400-volt surge of electricity, the mask covering his face slipped off, “revealing his wide-open, tearful eyes and saliva coming from his mouth,” according to author Joy James.
After two more jolts of electricity, the boy was dead.
Less than three months earlier, Stinney, who had no previous history of violence, had been accused of the crime after he admitted speaking to the girls when they stopped by a field in Alcolu where he was grazing his cow to ask where they could find maypops, a type of flower. Authorities alleged Stinney had used a railroad spike to shatter both of the girls’ heads. The boy was taken into a room with several white officers and within an hour, they said he had confessed. Because there were no Miranda rights in 1944, Stinney was questioned without a lawyer and his parents were not allowed into the room.
No written confession exists, only a few handwritten notes a deputy who was present during the interrogation. They claimed that Stinney had said he killed Mary Emma because he wanted to have sex with Betty June. When Betty June resisted his advances, authorities said, he murdered her too.
Reports said that the officers had offered the boy ice cream for confessing to the crimes.
A mob of about 40 angry white men showed up at the jail, demanding to lynch Stinney, but he had already been moved about 50 miles away to Columbia. Even though Stinney’s father had helped search for the girls when they went missing, he was fired and forced to leave the home provided by Alderman’s Lumber Mill where he worked.
The court appointed 31-year-old Charles Plowden, a tax commissioner, to defend Stinney.
“Plowden had political aspirations, and the trial was a high-wire act for him,” author Mark R. Jones wrote. “His dilemma was how to provide enough defense so that he could not be accused of incompetence, but not be so passionate that he would anger the local whites who may one day vote for him.”
Plowden did not cross-examine any of the prosecution’s witnesses, nor did he call any witnesses for the defense. His entire argument was that Stinney had been too young to be held responsible for the crime, but under South Carolina law at that time, 14 was considered to be age of criminal liability.
The trial was over two hours after it began. A jury of twelve white men deliberated for 10 minutes before convicting Stinney. Plowden later told the judge that there was nothing to appeal, and the Stinney family could not afford to continue the case. A one-sentence notice of appeal would have automatically stayed the case for a year.
While Plowden was preparing a run for state House that Spring, he was not the only one for which the trial held political implications. As elected officials, Sheriff Gamble, Judge Phillip Henry Stoll, Gov. Olin Dewitt Talmudge Johnston, Coroner Charles Moses Thigpen and State Sen. John Grier Binkins, who were all involved in the case, were also beholden to white voters.
State Sen. Binkins assisted the prosecution and Gov. Johnston could have commuted the sentence. Coroner Thigpen had testified that while there was no evidence of rape, he could not rule it out, an inflammatory statement that would have normally been subjected to cross-examination.
Only 83 days after first being accused of the crime, Stinney was put to death.
Attorney Steve McKenzie told Raw Story that he has no doubt this case was an injustice.
“You can’t try a [general session-level] case in two hours,” McKenzie explained. Plowden “would have had an ethical obligation to appeal the case. He would have had an ethical obligation, also, to cross-examine the witnesses but he didn’t do either one of those.”
“The defense attorney obviously didn’t even know what he was — he wasn’t a criminal lawyer, he was just someone that was appointed. He argued that you couldn’t execute George Stinney because he was 14. Well, the age was 14 for an adult at the time. So, he argued actually the wrong argument in his closing statement.”
McKenzie said that the lack of preserved evidence made clearing Stinney’s name difficult, but he hoped that the affidavits of three new witnesses, one of which could provide an alibi, would be enough to re-open the case.
“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,” he added. “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.”
Activist George Frierson, who is also from Alcolu, said that he had come across the case about five and a half years ago while doing black historical research and has been fascinated ever since.
“The fact that he was 14 just astounds me,” Frierson told Raw Story. “I’m a military veteran and I always tell people that the two things that we protect is our elders and our children. And to have this happen to a 14-year-old child, it was appalling.”
“I was born in Alcolu, where he was living at the time of this incident, and it always has been talked about in the community. In fact, 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.”
He added that the rumored culprit had come from a well-known, prominent white family. Another member of that same family had served on the coroner’s inquest jury which recommend that Stinney be prosecuted.
Frierson hopes that clearing Stinney’s name would make people think twice in other death penalty cases like that of Troy Davis, who was recently executed by the state of Georgia. Since his conviction, seven of the nine people who testified against him had recanted or changed their testimonies.
“I have a problem with the death penalty because it is irreversible,” Frierson said. “You find out later that someone actually was innocent then you go and say we’re going to settle a wrongful death lawsuit. What does that do for the victim? Nothing. It doesn’t do anything for them.”
“I think it will make people look a little more closely. Just like the seven people that recanted in the Troy Davis case… After seven people recanted a story out of nine, if that’s not reasonable doubt, I don’t know what is. And yet, the state of Georgia decided to go through with the execution.”
If Stinney’s name is cleared, it won’t be the first time the state of South Carolina has learned that the it put the wrong person to death.
In 2009, the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services unanimously pardoned Thomas Griffin and Meeks Griffin for the 1913 murder of John Q. Lewis, a former Confederate Army veteran.
“It’s good for the community,” radio show host Tom Joyner, who had two great uncles that were also executed for the crime, told CNN. “It’s good for the nation. Anytime that you can repair racism in this country is a step forward.”