Here’s what to know about George Stinney’s wrongful execution in 1944
On June 16, 1944, the state of South Carolina wrongly executed the 14-year-old by electric chair after being accused of killing two white girls.
On June 16, 1944 at 7:30 p.m., the state of South Carolina executed a 14-year-old boy by electric chair.
His name was George Junius Stinney Jr. He was 5 feet, 1 inch tall, and weighed about 95 pounds as he sat atop the Bible he carried as a booster seat.
On March 24, 1944, not even 3 months prior to Stinney’s execution, two white girls, Mary Emma Thames and Betty June Binnicker, aged 7 and 11, went missing and were later found in a ditch, badly beaten with fatal blows to their skulls.
As a community search party approached Stinney, he reportedly acknowledged seeing the girls earlier in the day when they asked him and his 8-year-old sister, Amié, if they’d seen any wildflowers.
Upon learning of the girls’ deaths, police arrested 14-year-old Stinney who, while in custody, allegedly confessed to the murders. Other than this supposed confession, there was no other physical evidence nor any witnesses to testify to his guilt, but Stinney was still charged and stood trial a month later.
The trial only lasted 2 hours, and after less than 10 minutes of deliberation, the all-white all-male jury found him guilty of the first-degree murder of the two girls. The court refused to hear his appeal, and he was sentenced to die by electrocution just two months later.
Decades later, local attorneys Matt Burgess and Steve McKenzie who’d heard about Stinney’s story, set out to clear his name.
According to an article by Post and Courier, Burgess wondered “Could a boy that small beat to death two girls, one of whom was roughly his size? Would he have had the strength to drag their bodies into a ditch? How could a Black child living in the Jim Crow South commit such a brazen crime against two white girls in the middle of the afternoon without attracting attention?”
WARNING: The following video reenactment may be triggering to viewers.
In December 2014, 70 years after Stinney’s execution, South Carolina Judge Carmen Tevis Mullen vacated George Stinney, Jr.’s conviction based on the evidence provided by Burgess, and stated that the boy’s prosecution was marked by “fundamental, Constitutional violations of due process.”
In a report by CBS News, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Amanda Salas concluded “to a reasonable degree of psychiatric certainty that any confession given was a coerced, compliant false confession and is unreliable.”
The Post and Courier exposé reports that, in Stinney’s local town of Alcolu, South Carolina, it has long since been rumored that the person who actually committed the murders of the two girls was 26-year-old George Burke Jr., a white man whose influential father George Burke Sr. owned the land on which the girls’ bodies were found.
Burke Sr. was also the boss of the local lumber company where Stinney’s father worked (and was subsequently fired from), as well as the organizer of the search party that found the girls. Burke Sr. served as foreman of the coroner’s inquest jury that recommended Stinney be held for murder, and he even served on the grand jury.
Burke Jr. died three years later of complications from chronic kidney disease and allegedly confessed to the murders on his deathbed. However, the remaining Burke family denies these rumors.
Although Stinney’s execution was 76 years ago, echoes of this past are felt when the teenagers now known as the Exonerated Five were coerced into false confessions. Echoes of this past are felt when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was criminalized and shot dead by police on sight.
Echoes of this past are felt when statistics show that people of color are more likely to be prosecuted for capital murder, sentenced to death, and executed, especially if the victim in the case is white.
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