George Stinney was electrocuted in South Carolina in 1944. He is the youngest person electrocuted in the United States since the 1800s. Now 70 years later, his family still contends his innocence and wants his name cleared; a posthumous pardon.
In an era of the Jim Crow South, it was a time of struggle for African-Americans. Being a black teen, such as George Stinney, was not an easy way of life.
At the time of his apprehension, Stinney was indicted for murdering two white girls, 7-year-old Mary Emma Thames and 11-year-old Betty Binnicker with a railroad spike. According to a sheriff’s report, Stinney had confessed to the crime. It was a clear-cut case, as far as they were concerned. A handwritten statement by H.S. Newman, the law enforcement officer on the case, stated that Stinney had made a confession, and told the officer where he could find “a piece of iron” that the teen placed in the ditch near the scene of the crime.
Following his arrest, the Stinney family was threatened with lynching, forcing them to flee. Stinney was questioned without a lawyer and without his parents’ presence.
During the hearing, there were no eyewitnesses, proof or even testimony in his favor to clear him of the crime. Since it was during a time of segregation, an all-white jury found him guilty of the murders within minutes. His sentence was death by electrocution.
Within the span of 81 days, George Stinney was led into the Columbia Penitentiary death chamber to an electric chair with a bible under his arm. The chair was meant for adult defendants. Its straps were found to be too loose on his slight, 95-pound frame, and the electrode was too big for his skinny leg. The bible he held was placed underneath him on the seat so that the electrodes could be positioned accurately. As the switch was pulled, and he was hit with the electrical surge, Stinney’s body convulsed, displacing the adult mask from his face. Witnesses stared in horror as tears streamed down his face.
For years, there have been inquiries swirling about the trial. Was George Stinney innocent? Now, after 70 years, the Stinney family not only seeks justice but truth. They firmly believe that Stinney was forced to confess, didn’t have proper council, and that the 14-year-old had an alibi. During the one-day trial, the defense called no witnesses and no questions were asked on cross-examination. Unfortunately, case records, including the alleged confession are lost, and there are no trial transcripts.
Wilford Hunter, Stinney’s former cellmate released a statement saying that the teen denied the murders. He told Hunter that he didn’t do it and questioned why he would be electrocuted for something he didn’t do.
However, there was one person who maintained that Stinney was guilty. In a 2003 interview in The Herald, the arresting sheriff’s son, James Gable happened to be in the back seat with the teen as he was driven to the Columbia penitentiary. He claims that Stinney “was real talkative about it,” telling the sheriff’s son that he had not wanted to kill the girls.
The George Stinney case is just one of recent cases whose verdicts prosecutors are trying to overturn decisions. In 2007, Lena Baker, a black maid from Georgia received a posthumous pardon for the killing of a white man who had held her against her will. Then, in 2010, the American radio host, Tom Joyner, won a posthumous pardon for two great-uncles executed in South Carolina.
In the case of George Stinney, family and supporters contend he was innocent, and want the state to admit that officials executed the wrong person in the 1944 crime.
by Dawn Levesque