Leaders at the Charleston School of Law, along with 17 students, are beginning an effort to mount a civil rights case stemming from the 1944 execution of George Stinney Jr. Only 14 years old at the time, Stinney was arrested after two young girls were discovered murdered in Clarendon County, S.C. He remains the youngest person put to death in the United States in the past century. Strapped in the electric chair just two months following his conviction, his lawyer never attempted to appeal the jury’s verdict, which came after 10 minutes of deliberation. It would be 70 years before a South Carolina judge vacated the conviction after finding constitutional violations during the original trial.
As a part of the School of Law’s new clinical externship program, a group of students will be working on real cases, including that of Stinney. School President Ed Bell called the execution of this young, black child a blight on South Carolina’s history and hopes that this project will set a new precedent for similar cases that are believed to be miscarriages of justice.
“They’re going to study this case, and they’re going to figure out how they can bring a civil rights claim against those who perpetrated this fraud against George Stinney some 70 years later,” said Bell. “There’s a way to do it, and we’re going to figure it out.”
School of Law professor Miller Shealy, who is leading the new program and played a role in the 2014 case to have Stinney’s conviction vacated, believes that this project will bring more relief to Stinney’s surviving family. While it remains too early in the process to tell exactly what reopening this decades-old case will mean for the students at the School of Law or the people of South Carolina, Shealy remains optimistic, saying, “All landmark cases are long shots at some point.”
In a court affidavit from 2013, a man by the name of Francis Batson recalls taking part in a search party to locate Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames, ages 11 and 7, who were determined missing in March of 1944. Batson, who was 15 at the time, told the court that he searched late into the night, before getting some sleep, and rejoining the search the next morning.
Walking along a path, one of the members in his group spotted the handlebars of a bicycle in a small ditch. As they approached, they found the two girls lying on their backs under the bike in a shallow pool of water, he said. Batson, 85 years old at the time his account was taken, did not recall seeing a weapon or very much blood.
A 2013 videotaped deposition from Stinney’s younger brother, Charles, provides an account of what happened the day his brother was taken away. Charles remembers George as small for his age, but a talented writer, who helped the rest of the kids with their homework. After school, it was George’s responsibility to take the family cow, Lizzie, out to graze. On that day, Charles says he followed their mother to the store, while George looked after their youngest sister, Amie. Charles remembers returning home to find George and his sister following shortly after them.
The whole family later went to a neighbor’s party, after which they learned of the two missing girls. Charles says his father helped join in the search, and it was at this time that he learned that George and Amie had spoken with two white girls, who were asking where they could find wildflowers.
Charles wasn’t home the next day when his brother was taken away. The family was told to pack up and leave town. In his deposition, Charles says that he never spoke to his brother again.
In a 1944 sworn statement from H. S. Newman, the man who arrested George Stinney, Newman said Stinney confessed to the murders and told him about a piece of iron about 15 inches long that he had hidden in a ditch near the bodies. Newman went on to say that the supposed murder weapon was later recovered.
On March 25, 1944, Dr. A. C. Bozard of Manning, S.C., examined the bodies of the two girls recovered by the search party. Both Binnicker and Thames’ injuries were said to be consistent with multiple blows to the head with a blunt instrument with a small round head about the size of a hammer. From Bozard’s notes, it is apparent that there were no clear signs of sexual assault.
In a letter dated June 14, 1944, South Carolina Gov. Olin Johnston responded to one of the many requests to stop Stinney’s execution by claiming that he was informed by the arresting officer in the case that Stinney had sexually assaulted the two girls. Stinney was executed two days later.
In 2013, Wilford Hunter, a man who claimed in a court affidavit to have spent time in jail with Stinney, described the experience. He said that they played games. Another inmate purchased them candy. Stinney asked for comic books.
“When the officers came for George to take him away, his demeanor changed in their presence,” Hunter said. “He became quiet, and only said, ‘Bye.'”
David Bruck, a law professor and attorney specializing in death penalty cases, wrote of Stinney’s execution in 1985 for the Washington Post. Bruck was compelled to pen the article after the state of Texas executed Charles Rumbaugh Jr. for a crime he committed as a minor. Decrying the use of capital punishment on minors, which was allowed in 27 states at the time, Bruck, who is currently the lead defense attorney in the federal case against accused Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof, pointed to the death of George Stinney.
“Because it seemed safe to assume until recently that no one as young as Stinney could possibly ever be sentenced to death again in this country, there was little reason to recall the details of his obscure and long-forgotten case,” he wrote. “But now that the United States has resumed executing people for crimes committed while they were juveniles, we might consider what, if anything, the crime and punishment of George Junius Stinney Jr. has to teach us now.”
Thirty years removed from Bruck’s statements and more than a decade since the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute someone for crimes committed as a minor, it seems there is no escaping the case of George Stinney. Whether a lesson is taken regarding the severity of sentencing a child to death or the deprivation of rights of a young, black suspect, those hoping to improve our legal system continue to be drawn to the case of this 14-year-old boy from the small town of Alcolu, S.C.