excerpted from: Sheri Lynn Johnson, John H. Blume and Hannah L. Freedman , The Pre-Furman Juvenile Death Penalty in South Carolina: Young Black Life Was Cheap , 68 South Carolina Law Review 331-357, 334-340, 356-357 (Spring, 2017) (133 Footnotes Omitted) (FULL ARTICLE).
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Four fourteen year olds black and poor--were convicted and sentenced to death. Two were executed legally, one was lynched following an appellate reversal, and the fourth had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. . . .
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.
Though not as "famous" as George Stinney, Jr., Milbry Brown is an equally tragic figure. She was (most likely) fourteen-years-old when she was executed on October 7, 1892, in the Spartanburg County jail-yard. Milbry was convicted in July of 1892 by an all-white jury of the June 1892 murder of Geraldine Carpenter. Geraldine was an eleven-month-old white infant for whom Milbry acted as the caretaker in her capacity as the Carpenters' "house girl." According to available contemporary sources, Milbry put two drops of carbolic acid in Geraldine's mouth while the baby slept; the motive was said to be revenge for the fact that the infant's mother had scolded Milbry earlier the same day. By some accounts, Milbry confessed to killing the child; in others she denied any intent to kill and insisted she only wanted to make the baby sick. To the jury, it did not matter.
The execution was originally scheduled for September, but due to a robust campaign for clemency based on Milbry's age, her intellectual disability (she was described as "ignorant' and as an "imbecile"), and the lack of clear evidence that she intended to kill Geraldine, Governor "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman delayed the execution so that he could investigate the case. Some of those petitioning for clemency also noted that had Milbry been white, she would not have been sentenced to death. There were also counter-petitions asking the Governor to let the sentence go forward. Governor Tillman decided, without much apparent angst, that the execution should proceed. According to Tillman, Milbry was "convicted of one of the most diabolical, cold-blooded murders in this criminal annals of the state." He went on to say that since South Carolina "courts had decided that fourteen was the age of consent, and in view of the atrocious nature of the murder, I decided to let the law take its course." Although a large crowd gathered to witness Milbry's original execution, which was halted literally as the young child stood on the gallows waiting to die, when the sentence was actually carried out, only a few people were present. Apparently, this was due to the fact that Tillman did not publicize the clemency denial until after Milbry was dead, and instead quietly sent word to the Sheriff of Spartanburg County to let the execution proceed. Even Milbry's parents did not attend their daughter's execution. Newspaper accounts of her death described the arrangements for the hanging as "perfect"; Milbry-- clothed in a white dress--fell approximately six feet, her neck was immediately broken and "not a muscle moved" after the drop. Press reports also noted that according to the Reverend C.C. Scott, pastor of the "colored Methodist church" in Spartanburg, Milbry had come to religious terms with her maker (i.e., "confessed conversion") a few days prior to her death.
Substantially less is known about the two remaining fourteen-year-olds who were sentenced to death in South Carolina pre-Furman. Clarence Lowman received a death sentence in 1925 for the murder of Aiken County Sheriff Henry H. Howard. Howard and several of his deputies were (according to the surviving deputies) attempting to execute a search warrant at the home of Sam Lowman, a relative of Clarence's, when Howard was shot and killed. In the ensuing gun battle, Annie Lowman, Sam's wife, was killed. Clarence and his cousins, Demon and Bertha Lowman, were charged with Howard's murder. Howard's funeral was attended by more than sixteen hundred people, and then-governor Thomas McLeod gave the eulogy. There was a silent procession of approximately seventy-five hooded and robed Ku Klux Klan members that marched two by two behind Howard's casket from the funeral home to the Aiken County Courthouse. The co-defendants' joint trial commenced on May 12, 1925, just seventeen days after the incident. All three were convicted by an all-white male jury. Clarence and Demon were sentenced to death; Bertha's life was spared but she was sentenced to life imprisonment. The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the convictions and sentences, concluding that a new trial was necessary due to the community unrest and inadequate instructions on the issue of whether the Lowmans conspired to kill the lawman. Demon Lowman's retrial was first, and the trial judge directed a verdict of not guilty at the conclusion of the prosecution's case. Later that evening, the three Lowmans were dragged from their cells by an angry white mob, taken to a wooded area and shot to death. While the new Sheriff Nollie Robinson testified at an inquest that he tried to fight off--but was ultimately overwhelmed by--the lynch mob, an investigation conducted by the NAACP shortly after the three were murdered revealed that Sheriff Robinson was the actual leader of the vigilantes and the architect of the lynching.
In early May 1920, Mack Thompson, age 14, was charged in Lexington County with the assault with intent to ravish (attempted rape) of two young white girls (ages 10 and 12). Thompson approached the two children as they were on their way to school, grabbed the older of the two and dragged her into the woods. The younger girl escaped and ran to get help. Mack was soon apprehended and quickly taken to the state penitentiary in Columbia for safekeeping, apparently just ahead of a lynch mob. Mack was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white, all-male Lexington County jury.
His death sentence, however, was commuted by then-governor Robert Cooper. Governor Cooper initially granted Mack a reprieve and ordered a mental examination after learning that a "thirteen year old negro, of feeble mind, was in the death house of the penitentiary awaiting execution." The examining doctors concluded that while Thompson may have been fourteen (not thirteen), his "brain had not developed beyond that of a normal child of nine years, that he was a low grade moron, and therefore not fully responsible for his criminal acts." On that basis, the Governor commuted Mack's death sentence to one of life imprisonment. A review of social security and census records indicate Mack was eventually released (by 1952) and he died in Inman, South Carolina in 1988.