Friday, November 17, 2017

George Stinney, Jr.
 
George Julius Stinney, Jr. is the most well-known pre-Furman juvenile executed in South Carolina. George, just fourteen at the time his death was carried out, is the youngest documented person to be legally put to death in the United States.  He was convicted of killing two young white girls, Betty June Binnecker (age 11) and Mary Emma Thames (age 8) in the rural town of Alcolu in Clarendon County, South Carolina.  When the two girls failed to come home after a flower picking expedition, a search party was organized. Their bodies were found the next morning in a ditch near the "colored" section of the small, segregated community.  Both had been beaten to death with a blunt instrument.  George, the oldest child of a black sawmill worker, was soon apprehended and after being questioned by the police, orally confessed to attempting to rape Betty June and to killing both girls with a railroad spike.  The local Sheriff transported Stinney to another county, purportedly to save him from a lynch mob. George's father was fired from his job at the mill and advised to leave the county immediately.  He did; the entire family (sans George) boarded a northbound train with the few personal items they could carry, never to return to South Carolina again.  A month after his arrest, a special term of court was convened in Clarendon County for George's trial.  According to newspaper accounts, more than a thousand people showed up for the proceedings.  The courtroom was packed beyond capacity with the overflow spilling into the hallways and even outside onto the courthouse grounds.  George was  represented by a young court-appointed lawyer with political aspirations.  The trial took approximately three hours; his lawyer filed no motions (not even a motion for a change of venue), did not challenge the admissibility of his client's confession, presented no evidence on young George's behalf and asked very few questions when given the opportunity to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses.  After ten minutes of deliberation, the jury of twelve white men found the teenager guilty of murder and offered no recommendation of mercy.  The trial judge sentenced George to death.  Witnesses described George as looking "scared to death," "dazed" and as not appearing to realize the seriousness of the situation he was in.  George's counsel filed no notice of appeal, maintaining at the time and even years later that there were no grounds for appeal,  and the child was electrocuted on June 16, 1944, less than three months after the two young girls' tragic deaths. According to prison records, George was 5 1  tall and weighed 95 pounds at the time of his execution.  He was so small, he had to sit on books in order to be "properly" strapped into the electric chair. Reportedly, when his body convulsed after the electricity entered his body, the execution mask fell, exposing his tear-stained face.  Governor Olin D. Johnston received numerous requests from across the state and the country to commute the sentence based on George's age.  But Johnston was challenging the virulent segregationist "Cotton Ed" Smith  for a seat in the United States Senate, and he believed--quite likely correctly--that any perceived weakness on what was often referred to as the "race issue," could cost him the election.  He denied clemency, young George was executed and Johnston did in fact become the new Senator from South Carolina.
 
In 2014, seventy years after George was electrocuted, South Carolina Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen posthumously overturned his conviction, noting a lack of credible evidence of guilt and the possibility that his  confession was coerced.  George's sister and other relatives also presented alibi evidence that he was with them at the time the girls were murdered, and persons in jail with George reported that he adamantly denied committing the crime.  While not directly exonerating young George, Judge Mullen did note that the trial was grossly unfair and that it was a "truly unfortunate episode in our history.

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