At age 14, George Stinney was the youngest individual who was ever executed in the United States since the 20th century. On March 24, 1944 Stinney was charged with the murder of two white girls, Mary Emma Thames and Betty June Binnicker. They were eight and 11 years of age, respectively. The girls had been killed the previous day. Stinney, of course, was black. The homicides and subsequent arrests occurred in Alcolu, a small town in South Carolina. It was a time and a place where things usually did not turn out well for black people accused of committing crimes against whites. Indeed, Mr. Stinney was executed by electrocution on June 16, 1944. Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen is currently considering reopening the case. If George Stinney is granted a new trial, he could be exonerated.
Today, capital murder trials in America usually do not begin until several years after the alleged crime has been committed. Attorneys one both side often request extra time to prepare their cases. When the trial does begin it usually lasts for several weeks; and if the defendant is convicted and sentenced to death, it usually takes years for the execution to be carried out. George Stinney’s trial, in contrast, only lasted for one day. The all-white jury convicted him after deliberating for 10 minutes. His execution date fell a mere 83 days after his alleged crimes.
The speed at which events progressed is not the only concerning matter. By most accounts, Mr. Stinney did not receive the best possible defense. His court appointed attorney did not cross examine a single witness during the trial, nor did he call any witnesses to the stand. He argued that legally his client could not be held responsible for the murders due to his age, but South Carolina law at the time considered someone to be an adult when they reached the age of 14.
Those who believe in Stinney’s guilt point out that he confessed to the murders, although no document of such a confession can be found today. Even if he did actually confess, it seems likely that such a confession was coerced by the police. His parents were not allowed to be present during the interrogation, nor was he assisted by counsel.
In addition to claiming that Stinney’s confession was coerced, attorneys for the Stinney family say that he had an alibi for the murders. His sister, Amie Ruffner, claims that her brother was with her at the time of the killings. In an interview with WLTX-TV on Monday, Ruffner admitted that she and her brother did in fact speak to the victims on the day they died. The girls asked Stinney and his sister where they might be able to find Maypops, which are a type of flower. According to Ruffner, the girls moved along, very much alive, after the conversation, at which point she went to attend to the family cow, along with her brother. Ruffner claims she never left Stinney’s side from the point they spoke to the girls to the time they were found dead. George Stinney could be exonerated as a result of this evidence.
In addition to the alibi provided by Ruffner, the physical evidence is also very weak. The murder weapon was apparently a rail pin weighing in excess of 20 pounds. It seems highly improbable that a 14-year-old child would have been able to swing such a heavy object hard enough to cause the damage it did. It is always rare for convictions to be overturned, especially so many years after the fact when a great deal of evidence has been lost; but if George Stinney is granted a new trial, he could be exonerated many years after his execution.
By Jean-Paul Gauthier