Moral Low Ground


Black South Carolina Teen George Stinney Exonerated 70 Years After Execution

George Stinney

A South Carolina judge on Wednesday vacated the 1944 murder conviction of the youngest American executed during modern times, a black teen wrongfully electrocuted for the deaths of two white girls.

Decrying what she called “a great and fundamental injustice,” Circuit Court Judge Carmen T. Mullen exonerated George Stinney, who was executed in South Carolina’s electric chair on June 16, 1944 at the age of 14.

“I can think of no greater injustice than the violation of one’s Constitutional rights which has been proven to me in this case,” Mullen wrote in her ruling.

The Associated Press reports Stinney was arrested, tried, convicted and executed within a three-month period, without appeal, for the brutal March 1944 murder of Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 7.

According to the New York Times, the girls were last seen alive riding their bicycles by pastures in rural Alcolu, a segregated mill town. They were found the following morning in a ditch with their heads bashed in by a railroad spike.

Police arrested Stinney, who a witness said was with the girls as they picked flowers in a field. Kept from his parents, the terrified teen confessed to the murders later that day, although there was no physical evidence linking him to the killings. Stinney also allegedly confessed to wanting to have sex with Betty.

Stinney’s trial lasted all of two hours, with the all-white jury (blacks were not permitted to vote during Jim Crow, a prerequisite for jury service) deliberating for 10 minutes before finding him guilty and sentencing him to death. His attorney, Charles Plowden, was an aspiring politician. He did not appeal.

On June 16, 1944 the condemned boy was executed in an electric chair that was too big for his diminutive frame. According to Charleston historian Mark R. Jones, the mask that should have covered his face during his execution fell off and the gallery spectators watched the child’s tearful and horrified face as he died violently.

Stinney’s family suffered as well. After the teen’s arrest, his father was fired from his job and his family was forced to flee Alcolu under threat of lynching.

Long held as an example of the injustices perpetrated and perpetuated against black people in the South during the Jim Crow era — when police, prosecutors, judges and juries were all-white, Judge Mullen compared Stinney’s case to that of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black Alabama teens wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in 1931.

But none of the Scottsboro nine were executed.

The Washington Post reports Stinney’s case was revived after George Frierson, a textile inspector and local school board member, began studying it nine years ago. New details soon emerged: a coerced confession, an unheard alibi.

Amie Ruffner, Stinney’s sister, told WLTX that her brother was innocent. She knows because she says he was with her at the time the girls were murdered. Ruffner, now 77, said the two girls had even talked to her before their tragic deaths.

“They said ‘could you tell us where we could find some maypops,'” Ruffner recalled, referring to passionflowers. “We said ‘no,’ and they went on about their business.”

“[The police] were looking for someone to blame it on, so they used my brother as a scapegoat,” Ruffner added.

Not satisfied with mere exoneration, some attorneys believe Stinney should be granted a new trial.

“There’s an individual who is the foreman of the jury on the coroner’s inquest,” Matt Burgess, an attorney at the law firm of Coffey, Chandler and McKenzie, told WLTX. “He’d signed as a witness, also, on the indictment forms. He was a witness of the grand jury.”

“For one person to have been on so many steps of that procedural process certainly tends to suggest a violation of George Stinney’s due process rights,” asserted Burgess.

Lawyers from Coffey, Chandler and McKenzie will now make the case for a new trial for Stinney at a Tuesday hearing at the Sumter County Courthouse in Sumter.

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