Among the darkest stories in this state’s dark history is the tale of George Stinney, the 14-year-old Clarendon County boy who was accused of murdering two white girls, was convicted in a one-day trial, and executed in the state electric chair 83 days after he was charged. And of course, George Stinney was black. He is the youngest person executed in the United States in over a century.
On Dec. 10, World Human Rights Day, peace activists and human rights activists held a vigil outside the Clarendon County Courthouse in Manning, where George Stinney was tried and sentenced in 1944. Among those speaking were South Carolina attorney Steve McKenzie, who is working to re-open the George Stinney case by the end of this year, and local activist and researcher George Frierson, who is seeking an exoneration for Stinney. A documentary film on the Stinney case is also in production, set for release in 2014. The vigil was part of a day of observance and remembrance, organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in conjunction with the U.N. Mandate for Human Rights.
Like much of South Carolina’s tragic racial history, the George Stinney case has been forgotten, lost and ignored for generations. But with the 70th anniversary of the execution coming up in June 2014, the case is drawing new attention — and criticism — as an example of this state’s racially flawed criminal justice system.
On a March day in 1944, Stinney was seen talking to two white girls — 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and seven-year-old Mary Emma Thames — in the rural Clarendon County town of Alcolu. Later that day the girls went missing. A massive manhunt turned up their bodies the next day in a rain-filled ditch not far away. They had been killed with heavy blows to the head. The coroner later identified a railroad spike as the murder weapon.
Stinney was arrested within hours. He was apparently the only suspect in the case. He was interrogated by three white police officers, without benefit of an attorney or even the presence of his parents. After an hour with Stinney, the officers announced that they had a confession, but there was never a transcript of the interrogation, only some handwritten notes from one of the officers.
When Stinney came to trial in Manning a few weeks later, hundreds of white people packed the courtroom. Blacks were barred. Jury selection, trial, and sentencing were all done in one day. Stinney’s court-appointed attorney was a politically ambitious young tax commissioner who was preparing to run for the General Assembly. In retrospect it seems clear he had no intention of playing Atticus Finch and jeopardizing his political future. He called no witnesses for the defense and cross-examined none of the three prosecution’s witnesses. It took the all-white jury just 10 minutes to convict and about as long for the judge to hand down the death sentence. Everybody made it home in time for dinner.
Stinney’s attorney did not file an appeal. A one-sentence notice of appeal would have automatically stayed the case for a year.
On the night before Stinney’s execution, Gov. Olin Johnston traveled the few blocks from the Govenor’s Mansion in Columbia to death row at the Central Correctional Institution, where he looked in on the boy as he waited out his last hours. There had been widespread calls for Johnston to commute the sentence, to grant clemency, anything in his executive power to save the child. We will never know what he was thinking that night, but we know what he didn’t do. For Johnston also had political ambitions, and a career in the U.S. Senate awaited him.
At 7:30 the next evening, George Stinney — all 95 pounds of him — was led from his cell to the death chamber as he clutched a Bible. He was so small that the executioner’s assistants had difficulty securing him to the chair and securing the electrode to his leg. By some accounts, they used the Bible as a booster seat.
In a recent interview for the Raw Story, McKenzie said that he hopes that affidavits from three new witnesses, one of which could provide an alibi for Stinney, 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.'”
It’s much too late for young George Stinney to receive any justice, but it’s not too late for this bloody old state to step forward and do the honorable thing.
Will Moredock blogs at WillMoredock.com.