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George Junius STINNEY Jr.

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Juvenile (14) - The youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: March 24, 1944
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: October 21, 1929
Victims profile: Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 8
Method of murder: Beating with a 15 inch railroad spike
Location: Clarendon County, South Carolina, USA
Status: Executed by electrocution on June 16, 1944
 
 

 
 

George Junius Stinney Jr. (born October 21, 1929, died June 16, 1944) was, at age 14, the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century.

The case

Stinney, who was black, was arrested for murdering two white girls, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 8, in Alcolu, located in Clarendon County, South Carolina, on March 23, 1944.

The girls had disappeared while out riding their bicycle looking for flowers. As they passed the Stinney property, they asked young George Stinney and his sister, Katherine, if they knew where to find "maypops", a type of flower. When the girls did not return, search parties were organized, with hundreds of volunteers, and their bodies were found the next morning in a ditch filled with muddy water. Both had suffered severe head wounds.

Stinney was arrested a few hours later and was interrogated by several white officers in a locked room with no witnesses aside from the officers; within an hour, a deputy announced that Stinney had confessed to the crime.

According to the confession, Stinney (90 lbs, 5'1") wanted to "have sex with" 11 year old Betty June Binnicker and could not do so until her companion, Mary Emma Thames, age 8, was removed from the scene; thus he decided to kill Mary Emma. When he went to kill Mary Emma, both girls "fought back" and he thus decided to kill Betty June, as well, with a 15 inch railroad spike that was found in the same ditch a distance from the bodies.

According to the accounts of deputies, Stinney apparently had been successful in killing both at once, causing major blunt trauma to their heads, shattering the skulls of each into at least 4-5 pieces. The next day, Stinney was charged with first-degree murder.

Jones describes the town's mood as grief, transformed in the span of a few hours into seething anger, with the murders raising racially and politically charged tension. Townsmen threatened to storm the local jail to lynch Stinney, but prior to this, he had been removed to Charleston by law enforcement. Stinney's father was fired from his job at the local lumber mill and the Stinney family left town during the night in fear for their lives.

The trial took place on April 24 at the Clarendon County Courthouse. Jury selection began at 10 am, ending just after noon, and the trial commenced at 2:30 pm. Stinney's court appointed lawyer was 30-year-old Charles Plowden, who had political aspirations. Plowden did not cross-examine witnesses, his defense was reported to consist of the claim that Stinney was too young to be held responsible for the crimes. However the law in South Carolina at the time regarded anyone over the age of 14 as an adult.

Closing arguments concluded at 4:30 pm, the jury retired just before 5 pm and deliberated for 10 minutes, returning a guilty verdict with no recommendation for mercy. Stinney was sentenced to death in the electric chair. When asked about appeals, Plowden replied that there would be no appeal, as the Stinney family had no money to pay for a continuation. When asked about the trial, Lorraine Binnicker Bailey, the sister of Betty June Binnicker, one of the murdered children, stated:

"Everybody knew that he done it, even before they had the trial they knew that he done it. But, I don't think that they had too much of a trial".

Local churches, the N.A.A.C.P., and unions pleaded with Governor Olin D. Johnston to stop the execution and commute the sentence to life imprisonment, citing Stinney's age as a mitigating factor. There was substantial controversy about the pending execution, with one citizen writing to Johnston, stating, "Child execution is only for Hitler". Still, there were supporters of Stinney's execution; another letter to Johnston stated: "Sure glad to hear of your decision regarding the nigger Stinney." Johnston did nothing, thereby allowing the execution to proceed.

Execution

The execution was carried out at the South Carolina State Penitentiary in Columbia, South Carolina on the morning of June 16, 1944, less than three months after the crime.

At 7:30 a.m. Stinney walked to the execution chamber, a bible under his arm. There were difficulties strapping the boy who at 5-1 feet and just over 90 lbs was comparably small for his age, to the electric chair. In addition, the face mask used in executions did not fit properly.

As a result, according to witnesses, it slid of his face during the execution, exposing his face to the witnesses. Stinney was pronounced dead less than four minutes after the execution began.

Controversy

Until today, the Stinney case has been regarded as controversial because it has not really satisfactorily been solved and because the investigations and judicial process showed severe shortcomings.

In this context, 1988, the case gave rise to the novel "Carolina Skeletons" by David Stout. 1991, it became the base for the film "Carolina Skeletons" (also "The End of Silence") directed by John Erman, featuring Kenny Blank (who changed his name to Kenn Michael later) as Linus Bragg, the 14 year old protagonist that is meant for George Stinney Jr.

It was later found that a beam with which the two girls had been killed weighed over twenty pounds. It was ruled that George wasn't able to lift the beam, let alone swing it hard enough to kill the two girls.

Wikipedia.org


Child killing

By Mark Gado

Alcolu is a small town off Route 521 in Clarendon County, South Carolina, about 50 miles east of Columbia. The first African-American woman to play tennis at Wimbledon, Althea Gibson, was born here. So was Peggy Parish, famous author of children’s books. Five governors of South Carolina were also born and raised here (http//www.clarendoncounty.com). Forest products are a major output of the region, along with tobacco, cotton and corn. Cucumbers are grown in abundance in Clarendon County. It is primarily an agricultural area that features only one small city: Manning, whose population in 1944 was less than 3,000. Essentially, the county was, and still is, a quiet farming community whose routine was rarely, if ever, interrupted by such a climatic event as child murder.

On the sunny afternoon of March 24, 1944, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and her friend , Mary Emma Thames, age 8, had just left their homes to pick flowers. They were alternately walking and riding Betty’s bicycle along the railroad tracks that ran through Alcolu. The girls often played in this area on the opposite side of the town. By any measure, it was a beautiful spring day: the trees just beginning to bud, the first flowers of the season blooming among the tall grass along the tracks. As they ran and skipped their way through the grass, they saw a young black man along the same path. He also lived in this small lumber-producing town and both girls knew him. Everyone knew everyone else in Alcolu, it was that kind of place. However, within minutes, both girls lay dead on the ground, their skulls brutally bashed in by a huge railroad spike. Their bodies were dragged through the grass and dumped into a small ravine. Immediately after the murders, the killer hid the bloody weapon in the bushes and began the leisurely walk home. He seemed unconcerned and it is doubtful that he truly understood the repercussions of what he had done.

The killer of these children was a child himself. His name was George Junius Stinney Jr., 14 years old, the illiterate son of a local mill worker. And incredibly, in less than 90 days, George would meet death himself, tears streaming down his face, strapped to the electric chair inside the bleak walls of the Central Correctional Institution in Columbia. But the public would barely notice his death. For in June 1944, the country had its eyes fixed firmly upon the beaches of Normandy, where a million American sons were locked in the desperate battles of D-Day while the fate of a world hung in the balance. These were hard times in America. The daily newspapers were filled with graphic stories of killing and destruction on a scale that can scarcely be imagined today. No one had time or compassion for a black teenage killer of little white girls. Nevertheless, history would be made at the Central Correctional Institution on June 16, 1944. For on that day, George Junius Stinney Jr., age 14 and 7 months, would become the youngest person to be legally executed in the United States during the 20th century.

The history of juvenile execution in America reads like a novel with no plot: it seems to have no sense of purpose or destination. Since the early 17th century, 356 juvenile offenders have been executed in the United States (Grossfield, p. 4). USA Today reports: “the first known execution of a juvenile on these shores was in 1642: Thomas Graungery, 16, of Plymouth Colony, Mass. was hanged for bestiality” (Edmonds, p. 11). Some executions become appalling to us when we consider the age of some of these defendants. Contrary to what is generally believed, however, capital punishment in colonial America was a controversial issue. Although it was common to hang offenders in England for crimes like burglary, robbery and theft-related offences, this was rare in America (Friedman, p. 42). Lawrence Friedman writes in Crime and Punishment in American History: “All things considered, the colonies used the death penalty pretty sparingly” (p. 42).

And it must be said that any interpretation of past executions from the 18th and 19th century has to be viewed within the time frame they occurred. For it seems unrealistic to apply today’s standards, values and beliefs to a society that existed hundreds of years ago which can have no valid comparison to today’s world from a social and legal perspective. During colonial times the age of the defendants was often not considered in certain crimes. For example, in the State of New York, two young girls identified only as “Bett” age 12, a slave belonging to Phillip van Rensselear and “Dean”, age 14, a slave belonging to a Volkert Douw were executed on March 14, 1794. They were accused and convicted of starting a fire that burned down a large portion of the City of Albany on November 17, 1793 (Reynolds, pg. 384). It is difficult to identify the youngest person legally executed in American history, but it surely may be a Cherokee Indian who was hanged for murder in 1885. He was ten years old (Grossfield, p. 4). In modern times, there have been relatively few juvenile executions although 70 juvenile offenders presently sit on death row in America. In 1988 a ruling in the Supreme Court “prohibits the death penalty for juvenile offenders whose crimes were committed before they were 16” (Grossfield, p. 5). Prior to 1988, though it was not frequent, execution of children younger than 16 was permitted.

Within a few hours of the Alcolu murders on March 24, 1944, the families of the missing girls were already frantic. It was very unusual for the girls not to return home on time. Since they were always playing in the woods and were familiar with the local countryside, it was unlikely they were lost. The local lumber mill, Alderman Lumber Company, organized a search party that consisted of their employees and almost everyone who lived in Alcolu. The operation was under the direction of B.G. Alderman, owner of the lumber company, and included both blacks and whites. Although they searched throughout the night, they could not find the missing girls. Then, at about 7:30 in the morning of the next day, some of the men found small footprints in the soft ground. They followed the trail and soon discovered a pair of scissors. It was already known that Betty June had taken these same scissors from her home to cut flowers. Within minutes, the search party came upon a water filled ditch, surrounded by thick, thorn covered bushes. The bushes showed signs of being crushed. In the ditch, the faint outline of a child’s bicycle could be seen under the water. “There’s the girls!” one of the searchers screamed. Scott Lowden, a member of the search party, jumped into the muddy hole and the bodies of the missing girls were finally found. Betty June had severe head wounds in the back of the skull. Mary Emma had five separate skull fractures. The cause of death in both cases was later determined to be severe trauma to the head. The girls had been viciously beaten with a heavy, blunt object.

After a few hours of investigation, the local sheriff deputies located and arrested George Stinney Jr. who neighbors had seen in the area where the girls were found. He was brought to the local sheriff’s office where police interrogated him. Since 1944 was long before the Warren Court era, there were no Miranda Warnings, even to a juvenile. The interrogation continued without a parent being present or attorney representation. Clarendon County Sheriff's Deputy H. S. Newman and a representative did the questioning from the Governor’s Office, Officer S.J. Pratt ( The State, March 26, 1944). In less than one hour, Stinney confessed to the crime.

Deputy H.S. Newman later described the event for the court: “I was notified that the bodies had been found. I went down to where the bodies were at. I found Mary Emma she was rite at the edge of the ditch with four or five wounds on her head, on the other side of the ditch the Binnicker girl, were laying there with 4 or 5 wounds in her head, the bicycle which the little girls had were side of the little Binnicker girl. By information I received I arrested a boy by the name of George Stinney, he then made a confession and told me where a piece of iron about 15 inches long were, he said he put it in a ditch about 6 feet from the bicycle which was lying in the ditch” (from Deputy Newman’s written statement, March 26, 1944). Later that same day, Stinney voluntarily led police to the crime scene, a short distance outside of the town, where the murder weapon, a large railroad spike, at least 14 inches long, was recovered.

Immediately, there was grief and outrage in Alcolu. Never before had such a horrendous crime occurred in Clarendon County. Mill workers were especially angered since both girls had relatives who worked at the mill. Passions became further inflamed when details of the crime, supplied by Stinney, became public. The young defendant told police that he killed Mary Ellen because he wanted to have sex with Betty June, the older girl. Angry townspeople and mill workers gathered together in Alcolu and they quickly formed into a mob. On the night of March 26, 1944, a mob of angry whites headed for the Clarendon County jail to administer mob justice. Although, lynching was actually rare in the 1940s, the bitter memories of Southern vigilantism from the 1920s and 30s are a sad part of America’s history. But sheriff’s deputies wisely escorted Stinney out of the county jail to the City of Columbia in adjoining Sumter County where he was held in a more secure facility for his own safety.

On April 24, 1944, just one month after his arrest, Stinney went on trial for his life. The trial would take place at the county seat in the City of Manning. Since angry residents already ran the Stinney family out of town, George had virtually no one on his side. The county court appointed a local attorney to assist in his defense. He was a 30-year-old aspiring politician named Charles Plowden. His goal in the case was simple: to provide a bare bones defense that would fulfill his responsibilities as a defense attorney and, at the same time, not anger the local residents. Since Stinney already confessed to the police and his guilt was firmly established, there was a general feeling that a trial was only a formal requirement.

By the time the trial began on April 24 at the Clarendon County Courthouse, the case was well known throughout the region, though outside the county, it was not widely reported. Outside South Carolina, it was virtually unknown. At the courthouse, it was standing room only, for well over 1,500 people had come to witness the spectacle. The stairways and hallways were filled to capacity. At 10 AM that morning, jury selection began. The State, published in Columbia, reported that “the state rejected four and the defense eight jurors before the jury was impounded at 12:30” (Rowe, p. 1). Even more ominous, however, was the jury composite. The panel consisted of 12 white men: no blacks and no women. Of course, racial make-up of a jury does not guarantee nor prevent justice. The only standard, in 1944 as well as now, is that a juror must be able to maintain a degree of fairness and objectivity that displays no bias to either side.

Given the publicity of the murders and the nature of the crime, the defense would certainly have been better served by a change of venue. Defense Attorney Charles Plowden, however, made no such motion. After a brief lunch, testimony began. “The trial began at 2:30 PM after eight minor cases had been disposed of in the morning” (The Daily Item, April 25, 1944).

Prosecutor Frank McLeod introduced Stinney’s statements of March 25 into evidence. In his initial statement to Deputy Sheriff Newman, Stinney explained that he was near his own home outside Alcolu when the oldest girl came along and asked him where she could pick some flowers. As he attempted to show the girls where the flowers grew, he said, the younger girl accidentally fell into a ditch. As he tried to help Mary Emma, both girls suddenly attacked him. Stinney admitted to hitting the girls with the railroad spike but claimed he did so in self-defense.

In the second statement, also given to Deputy Newman and Officer Pratt, Stinney gave a different version of the event. He told police he was indeed at his own home when he first saw the girls go by. He stated that he then followed the girls into the woods. Stinney said that he was interested in the older one, Betty June. In order to have Betty June to himself, he killed Mary Emma first by hitting her with the railroad spike. Betty June then attempted to run away and Stinney chased and caught her. When she continued to resist his sexual advances, he battered her with the same railroad spike. The State reported that Judge P. Stoll, who was from Kingstree, just 15 miles from Alcolu, halted the testimony to give women in the courtroom a chance to leave prior to “morbid details” (Rowe, p.1).

Scott Lowden, who found the dead girls, was called to the stand. He testified as to the condition of the bodies when they were found. He described a broken bicycle, which lay over the girls. The bodies were entangled with each other and lay submerged in the water where Stinney had dumped them. Betty June’s sister testified that it was she who gave the scissors to the girls to cut flowers.

The prosecution then called Dr. R. F. Baker to testify. It was Dr. Baker and Dr. A. C. Bozard of the Tuomey Hospital in Sumter who performed the post mortem examination of the dead girls. The autopsy reports were read into testimony: “We examined the body of eleven year old white girl. There was evidence of at least seven blows on the head of the child that seemed to have been made by a blunt instrument with a small round head about the size of a hammer. Some of these have only cracked the skull while two have punched definite holes in the skull” (Dr. Bozard’s autopsy report). Although Dr. Baker was unable to positively state that a rape or sexual assault had occurred, he did say that it was possible (Rowe, p. 1). Stinney, dressed in blue Junes, maintained a calm demeanor throughout the afternoon; “He remained calm and apparently little concerned” (Rowe, p. 1).

The presentation of the case, led by McLeod, moved quickly. Too fast, some say. Plowden and his assistant, attorney J.W. Wireman of Manning, presented no witnesses or evidence for the defense of Stinney. Instead, Plowden attempted to portray Stinney as a child who was too young, by law, to be held responsible for his crimes. In retaliation, the prosecution introduced Stinney’s birth certificate, which indicated he was born on October 21, 1929. Under South Carolina law in 1944, an adult was anyone over the age of 14. George Stinney was 14 years and five months old. That was the end of the case. It had begun at 2:30 in the afternoon and was over by 5:30 PM. “The jury retired at five minutes before five to deliberate. Ten minutes later it returned with its verdict: guilty, with no recommendation for mercy” (Brock, sec. D). The entire court proceeding from opening statements to sentencing had taken less than 3 hours. George Stinney “only when asked to arise and be sentenced, did he appear nervous and slightly excited” (Rowe, p.1). Judge Stoll sentenced him to die in the electric chair at Central Correctional Institution in Columbia, South Carolina on June 16, 1944. Stinney was quickly escorted out of court. He had less than two months to live.

The weeks passed as Stinney languished in prison. Some local organizations, like the N.A.A.C.P., churches and unions appealed to Governor Olin D. Johnston to stop the execution. The Daily Item reported on June 13, 1944 “The A.M.E. Church protested to Governor Olin D. Johnston in a telegram the imminent execution June 16 of a 14 year old Negro boy convicted of the murder of a young white girl”. A few days before the scheduled date, the Associated Press published a story on the Stinney case. The Governor’s office received hundreds of pleas to intervene in the name of mercy and fairness. Many cited Stinney’s age as an extraordinary factor that deserved consideration. One message received by the Governor’s Office read: “Child execution is only for Hitler” (Brock, p. D2). Others, however, had their own reasons for Stinney to die: “Sure glad to hear of your decision regarding the nigger Stinney” (Bruck, p. D2). Governor Johnston was unmoved by public sentiment and decided not to intervene. The Daily Item wrote: “The Governor said Friday he had studied the case and found no reason to intervene making this statement after the C.I.O., Tobacco Worker’s Union, the National Maritime Union and the White and Negro Ministerial Unions at Charleston asked him to commute the sentence to life imprisonment (June 13, 1944).

On the morning of June 16, 1944, a year in which 120 other convicts were executed in America’s prisons (U.S. Department of Justice), George Junius Stinney Jr. began his last walk on this earth at 7:30 AM. He carried a bible under one arm as he was escorted to the electric chair by prison guards. Stinney was of slight build. The teen-ager weighed just over 90 lbs and stood 5 feet, 1 inch tall. Since the electric chair was designed and constructed for adults, the attendants had a difficult time strapping him firmly into the seat. The mask that fitted upon the face also did not fit properly. Witnesses to the execution included Betty June’s father and brother Raymond. “Stinney refused to make any statement when given the opportunity by prison officials” (Daily Item, June 17, 1944). It was reported that the force of the electricity caused the mask to slip away from Stinney’s head, exposing his face to the gallery. Witnesses, it was said, would never forget the horror etched on Stinney’s childlike face in those final moments. He was pronounced dead less than four minutes later.

Although legitimate questions linger concerning the quality of Stinney’s defense team, no appeal was ever made. Politics may have played a strong role in that decision. In 1944, Plowden was scheduled to run for public office on the state level. There was speculation that he did not want to disrupt the community by appearing to be too enthusiastic about defending a killer who many felt deserved to die for his offense. Years later, in an interview, Plowden commented on the case: “There was nothing to appeal on” and added the Stinney family had no funds to continue the case (Bruck, sec. D).

Initially, it may appear that Stinney’s trial and execution were the product of a racist justice system, but it isn’t that final. Perhaps a case could be made as to the objectivity and fairness of the judicial process. The judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and jury all had friends, relatives and co-workers who lived in Alcolu. The Alderman Lumber Company employed hundreds of workers in the area who participated in the search. The crime and its lurid details were highly publicized and the racial nature of the case certainly influenced some of the community as well. However, nothing illegal was done during the investigation and prosecution of the case. All the procedures utilized by the police, courts, prosecution and prison system conform to the existing standards and legal requirements of the time and place. The court was well aware of Stinney’s age but the laws of the time allowed for a capital prosecution of a 14-year-old defendant.

The day after Stinney’s execution, June 16, 1944, a small, three-inch article appeared in The State newspaper, which contained the following line “Stinney, 14 years and five months old, was the youngest person ever to die in the chair”.

Incredibly, the crime for which he was executed had occurred just 81 days before, a time span that seems unthinkable to us today. In modern times, it is common for many years to pass before a convicted killer faces an execution. Stinney was buried in an unknown location and immediately forgotten by everyone except his family. In 1994, on the 50th anniversary of the case, Stinney’s sister, Catherine Robinson was interviewed. She stated that her brother wrote to her parents while he was on Death Row in Columbia, South Carolina. George told them he was innocent (The State, June 17, 1994).

However, Vermelle Tucker, Betty June’s sister, had this to say in the same article: “All my dad said was ‘Thank God he won’t do it to anybody else’” (The State, June 17, 1994). Indeed, he never would. But George Junius Stinney Jr., on June 16, 1944, became a tragic and unwilling fragment of American history as the youngest person legally executed in America during the 20th century.

True-Crime-Stories.blogspot.com



George Junius Stinney Jr.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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