South Carolina

75 years ago today, SC executed a black teenager after a three-hour trial

When 14-year-old George Stinney was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in a single afternoon for the murders of two white girls in 1944, he had no family with him in the rural South Carolina courtroom.

Even when the 5-foot-1, 95-pound teen shuffled into the death chamber of Columbia’s Central Correctional Institution two months later and was strapped into the electric chair, he had not been allowed to see his family in his final days, his parents and siblings having been forced out of town immediately after the killings.

But Stinney had family and supporters there, 70 years later in a packed courtroom, where attorneys for his surviving siblings made arguments for overturning his conviction. In a ruling issued nearly a year later, a judge vacated his conviction because of fundamental errors made during his trial.

“I’m happy for this day because it’s been such a long time coming, but then I cringe when I go back into that childhood and think of George back in the day,” Stinney’s sister, Amie Ruffner, told NBC News after the decision. “He had no one to help him. I get chills every time I think about it.”

Three-hour trial

Sunday is the 75th anniversary of Stinney’s execution.

In the midst of the Jim Crow era, Stinney, who was black, was executed less than three months after he was arrested and charged with the murders of the two young white girls in the Clarendon County town of Alcolu in March 1944.

Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 7, were found dead March 24, 1944, not far from Stinney’s home in the lumber mill community. They had disappeared a day earlier while riding bicycles. Their bodies were discovered by a search party in a ditch, partially covered with brush, their skulls bashed in.

Stinney was arrested and charged with the killings a short time later, because he was believed to have been the last person to see the girls.

Constable S.J. Pratt said Stinney told him after his arrest that he followed the two girls “with the intention of making love to the larger girl,” The State reported just before Stinney’s execution in 1944. But Mary, the younger girl, fell into a ditch partially filled with water, at which point Stinney hit her with a railroad spike, the constable said. When Betty June tried to help her, Stinney chased her and hit her with the spike, he said.

Pratt said in 1982 that Stinney even led law enforcement to where the bloody spike was hidden.

Stinney was tried for Betty’s murder. After a three-hour trial, the jury of 12 white men deliberated less than 10 minutes before convicting Stinney and sending him to the electric chair, eventually making him the youngest person legally executed in South Carolina and the United States in the 20th century.

Stinney’s attorney called no witnesses and did not file an appeal after the sentencing. It was not uncommon because, at that time, death sentences were not automatically reviewed by the S.C. Supreme Court as they are today, The State reported.

‘Such a small boy’

Despite pleas from both black and white ministerial groups to commute Stinney’s sentence to life in prison, then-Gov. Olin Johnston declined to interfere with the teen’s execution.

Groups protesting the execution noted the parallels to Ernest Feltwell, a white 16-year-old who was convicted of raping and killing an 8-year-old girl on Parris Island in 1943 and was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. Feltwell was released early, and to this day questions remain as to whether he was the true culprit, The Island-Packet reported.

“They asserted that the Stinney case was ‘railroaded’ through the court while Feltwell was given every protection for his rights,” according to an article in The State in June 1944. Still, the same article reads, “the governor said it appeared the brutality of the crime was more important than the age of Stinney.”

Stinney spent his final days on death row crying for his mother, The State reported in 1984.

News accounts of Stinney’s execution indicated the prison guards had difficulty strapping him into the electric chair, which was built for adults, saying, “Young Stinney was such a small boy that it was difficult to attach the electrode to his right leg.”

The first 2,400-volt of electricity shooting through Stinney’s body caused the death mask that covered his face — which, again, was made for an adult — to slip off, revealing the teen’s tear-stained face to those witnessing the execution.

In the nearly 4 minutes it took for Stinney to die from the three separate jolts of electricity, witnesses described seeing his skin take on a bluish tint, with “wisps of smoke and a brief shower of sparks” rising from his body, The State reported in 1984.

Getting the word out

Though Clarendon County is decades removed from the Jim Crow era, the Stinney case is still talked about in some circles, said George Frierson, an amateur historian and member of the Clarendon Three school board who grew up in the town where the murders happened.

“I was born in Alcolu, and this is something we talk about in the black community,” Frierson told The State last week. “I started doing research, and I put together every little piece I could get.”

One day in 2009, Frierson shared everything he’d learned on the case with Sharyn Lucas-Parker, a reporter for The Sumter Item, after Frierson happened to run into her at the store.

“I showed her the binder, and she went ballistic,” Frierson said. “After that ran on the front page, I got calls from around the country saying, ‘I want to represent you.’”

One of those calls came from Manning attorney Steve McKenzie, who first learned about Stinney’s case from that newspaper article and reached out to Frierson.

“For lack of a better word, I was stunned,” McKenzie said. “I thought, ‘If anything can be done about this, I have to try.’”

Through Frierson, McKenzie got in touch with Stinney’s surviving siblings and discussed the possibility of bringing suit to get the then-65-year-old conviction overturned.

‘Something kind of miraculous’

After getting Stinney’s family on board, McKenzie got in touch with Miller Shealy, a Charleston School of Law professor who recommended using a 400-year-old legal concept to get the conviction overturned.

“I knew we had to do something, we had to find something kind of miraculous to make this work,” Shealy said of the rarely-used writ of coram nobis, a sweeping judicial declaration that would set aside the guilty verdict against Stinney. The Cornell Law Legal Information Institute defines it as “a request to a judge to reopen and reconsider a matter that has already been decided.”

Traditional techniques and remedies for overturning sentences typically require action very soon after a conviction. But 70 years after Stinney’s conviction and execution, those weren’t options, Shealy said. For the writ of coram nobis to succeed, they had to show that Stinney’s trial was unfair but without going so far as to “open Pandora’s box” and allow for other decades-old convictions to be vacated, he said.

“Around that time, starting in the late 30s and going into the late 40s, there were various notions of due process out there, and those were violated during his trial,” Shealy said. “There were problems, according to the standards of the time.”

The strategy was ultimately successful, with Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen striking down Stinney’s conviction in December 2014 on the appeal brought on behalf of Stinney’s family. The decision meant that if Stinney had still been alive, he would have been granted a new trial.

In her testimony, Stinney’s sister, Ruffner, said neither investigators nor defense attorneys in 1944 asked about her statement that she and Stinney went straight home after speaking with the girls, who asked them that day where to find the best “may pops,” The Los Angeles Times reported.

Mullin ruled that the interrogation that produced Stinney’s confession was likely inadmissible because of his age, and that it may have even been coerced; that Stinney’s attorney failed to present a competent defense and filed no appeals to the death sentence; that the all-white jury pool was unrepresentative; and that the execution of a child was found to be unconstitutional, according to The Rock Hill Herald.

“I can think of no greater injustice,” she wrote, according to the newspaper.

‘It’s always been one-sided’

While much has been made of Stinney’s case in previous decades, with civil rights activists and supporters questioning the fairness of his trial or calling for exoneration, some maintain that his trial was fair and the punishment just.

In 2014, Goose Creek resident Frankie Bailey Dyches, the niece of Betty June Binnicker, got together with a group of people who were around during the 1944 murder investigation to talk about the case and review old documents and articles, The Berkeley Observer reported in 2014.

“It’s always been one-sided. They’re trying to make it about race, and it wasn’t,” she said, according to the newspaper. “It’s not that we believe hearsay that we grew up with all these years. We’ve done our research. We’ve talked to people that were actually there. The people that read these articles in the newspaper don’t know the whole truth.”

In a letter to the editor of The State published the day before Stinney’s execution, then-Clarendon County Sheriff J.E. Gamble defended the trial, verdict and sentencing, calling the murders “one of the most brutal crimes, ever known in the history of South Carolina.”

“I was in court all during the trial, and there were two able-bodied lawyers appointed by the court to defend him, and the case was fairly and squarely put before 12 intelligent jurors,” Gamble wrote. “It is my opinion that he got as fair a trial, as anyone ever did, anywhere; and I think that the verdict of the jury should stand.”

Learning from history

Legal experts express relief that another child will not make the same walk to South Carolina’s death chamber that Stinney did the evening of June 16, 1944.

In a 1985 column for The Washington Post, David Bruck, a renowned death penalty defense attorney and former Richland County public defender, discussed Stinney’s case in depth while condemning states that executed convicts who were juveniles at the time of their offense.

“It may be that the execution of a boy quite as young as 14 couldn’t happen today,” Bruck wrote. “But it ‘couldn’t happen’ in 1944, either: as the letters of protest to Johnson made clear, the execution of so young a child was unthinkable to many people at that time, and had the political climate [been different] in that spring of 1944, George Stinney’s sentence would likely have been commuted. Stinney just slipped between the cracks of a legal system that, then as now, almost never executes children.”

Under a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, states cannot impose the death penalty on a juvenile who was under the age of 18 at the time of the murder. Since 1966, anyone charged with a crime has to be read their Miranda rights, which include the right to have an attorney present. And laws now require that juries represent a cross-section of their communities, and that no one can be struck from serving on a jury because of their sex or race.

“He had a courtroom full of white people,” Shealy said of Stinney. “His parents, his family couldn’t even be there. They were terrified. His family didn’t see him again until the funeral. There was not a friend or family member or African-American face in that courtroom.”

Shealy also noted the significance of a female judge making the decision to set aside Stinney’s conviction, since women were not allowed to be judges in 1944.

“It’s important that the criminal justice system be inclusive,” he said. “If it’s going to be asked to judge everybody, then everybody has to participate. They didn’t then. They do now.”

Today, a memorial set up on Sumter Highway in Alcolu in 2014 reminds motorists and passersby of Stinney. The marker at first read “Wrongfully convicted, illegally executed by South Carolina.” After Stinney’s conviction was vacated, the memorial was updated, adding, “Conviction vacated by court order.”

The amount of attention and legal recognition the case received in recent years has been good for young people in the community to see, Frierson said.

“I let them know nothing is over until God says it’s over,” he said.