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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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,
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
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
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.
George Junius Stinney Jr.