Seeking Justice for George Stinney

A Boy’s Execution, 70 Years Later

georgestinneyBy JESSE WEGMAN
June 15, 2014

On the first page of the official sentencing report for George Stinney Jr., the outline of a boy is visible in a short string of numbers. Age: 14. Height: 5-1. Weight: 95. His complexion is listed as Black, his religion as Baptist, his occupation as None. Next to Build one word is typed: Small.

On March 24, 1944, George was arrested and charged with the murder of two young white girls, Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames, who were found beaten to death in a ditch in rural Clarendon County, S.C.

One month later he was tried and found guilty. He was executed on June 16, 1944 — the youngest person to be put to death in the 20th century.  — Read more: The New York Times

Backup copy: He was so small that the guards struggled to strap him to the electric chair, and the jolt of electricity knocked the mask from his face.

The sentencing report states that George Stinney was “legally electrocuted.” But to call what happened legal is to say only that this boy’s fate was decided in a courtroom, by a judge and jury, rather than by a throng of angry men with a rope.

In truth, George Stinney was lynched in slow motion.

The execution took place less than three months after his arrest. The lawyer representing the boy had never represented a criminal defendant before, and called no witnesses in his defense. The trial lasted three hours, followed by a 10-minute deliberation by the jury that sentenced him to die.

“I don’t think they cared whether he was guilty or innocent,” said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., which represents indigent death-penalty defendants in the South. “If they had proof-positive evidence that he was not guilty, I don’t think that would’ve changed anything.”

There is strong evidence that George Stinney was in fact innocent, and that his arrest and prosecution were riddled with unconstitutional errors and misconduct. In January, a coalition of lawyers and civil-rights advocates made these arguments before a South Carolina court to either retry or exonerate him, 70 years after his execution.

According to one of George’s sisters, Amie Ruffner, she and George were together all afternoon on the day of the murders, and had encountered the two girls only briefly. But the authorities never spoke to Amie or any other member of the Stinney family — they had been run out of town on the day of George’s arrest.

“My father came home and started packing up stuff to go,” said George’s other sister, Kathrine Robinson, who was 10 at the time. “We didn’t know what was going on. All I know is George was not there.” She never saw him again.

At trial, the sole piece of incriminating evidence was the word of the local police chief, who testified that George “made a confession and told me where a piece of iron about 15 inches long were.” No warrant had been issued for his arrest, and no lawyer was at his questioning.

Not that George Stinney’s court-appointed lawyer did anything to help. The lawyer, a tax commissioner, failed, among other things, to challenge the makeup of the jury, which was all white in a county that was nearly three-quarters black. He failed to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses, or to call Amie or any other witness who could have confirmed George’s alibi. And he failed to appeal the death sentence.

Six decades after the execution of George Stinney, the Supreme Court categorically banned the death penalty for minors. But elements of the case still echo today. Some states are trying to short-circuit the capital appeals process so that executions can happen more quickly.

“That need to punish in a lethal way still animates so much of what we’re doing in this country,” Mr. Stevenson said. The Third Circuit Court in Clarendon County has yet to rule on the case.