Was one of the youngest ever executed innocent?
It’s 1944, and police escort a 14-year-old boy into the death chamber. He stands just 5’1 and weighs a mere 95 pounds. He is so small in stature that dictionaries need to be stacked on the seat of the electric chair so that when he sits in it his head reaches the height of the electrodes. His chains are loose around his narrow ankles.
This young boy is about to be the youngest person in the twentieth century ever executed in the United States. Before there was a Troy Davis there was George Junius Stinney, Jr. and the state of South Carolina electrocuted him.
Stinney was accused of murdering two young white girls. They were eleven year-old Betty June Binnicker and 8-year-old Mary Emma Thames. The two girls went missing one day after they were riding their bikes while looking for flowers on the wrong side of the tracks in a small working class town of Alcolu, South Carolina where whites and blacks were separated by railroad tracks. The girls went missing and were later found dead in a ditch, murdered with a railroad spike.
George Junius Stinney was even part of the search crew and told a bystander simply that he had seen the girls earlier that day. This claim was enough probable cause for the South Carolina police to arrest Stinney for the double murder, even though, the idea of him being strong enough to kill not one but two girls is a stretch. Despite this fact, the police hauled Stinney into the station for hours of intense interrogation, without the presence of either of his parents. Reports claim the police offered Stinney ice cream if he confessed to them that he committed the double murder.
Stinney confessed. There is no written record of his confession in the archives. There is no physical evidence linking Stinney to the murder. There is no paper record of Stinney’s conviction.
The lack of any physical evidence or archived police and court records is the reason South Carolina attorney Steve McKenzie, who detailed Stinney’s story to TheGrio, said he wants to re-open the case of the execution George Junius Stinney, Jr. McKenzie said he believes Stinney was innocent of the murder and with “no investigative notes, no trial transcripts, no written confession, and nothing to indicate guilt,” it is clear Stinney’s trial and subsequent execution were suspicious at best and a miscarriage of justice at worst.
McKenzie hopes Ernest “Chip” Finney, the Claredon County solicitor (the district attorney) in South Carolina, will agree to file a motion to re-open the case by the end of this year. McKenzie says he believes Stinney was an “easy target” and was used as a “scapegoat” by police who wanted to quickly find and punish anyone they could tie to the murders.
Stinney was suspected simply because he mentioned he “saw” the girls earlier in the day. ”[Stinney] was a convenient target,” says Mckenzie, but the challenge now is ”[h]ow do you exonerate somebody where there is absolutely no evidence one way or the other? There was only a coerced confession. The confession was never written. [It was an] oral confession testified to two white officers and told to an all white male jury.”
This was South Carolina in 1944, with a black male defendant, two young white female victims, and an all white, male jury. Stinney never stood a chance.
McKenzie’s theory is that if the solicitor re-opens the case anew, the complete absence of any evidence will exonerate Stinney of the murders once and for all. There “should be excellent records in cases of execution,” McKenzie emphasized, and this case was an anomaly in that “there is no evidence of Stinney’s guilt. [Stinney] had a court appointed attorney with political aspirations who did not even ask a single question of a witness” during the trial.
McKenzie also says he’s not against the death penalty generally, but that juveniles should never be sentenced to die. “I don’t believe that the death penalty is a ‘per se’ bad thing. There are cases where I think it’s warranted. There are some people out there [who] no matter what, you cannot return them to society. In some cases it is warranted: Charles Manson. Ted Bundy,”
“But juveniles should never be executed,” McKenzie told theGrio, adding that in this case Stinney was an innocent child executed for a crime he was railroaded into confessing to.