The state of South Carolina executed 14-year-old George Stinney in 1944, but a judge from the same court declared his "innocence" in 2014.
In August 2018, viral social media posts introduced many readers to the case of George Stinney, Jr., a black teenager who was convicted of murder and executed by the state of South Carolina in 1944, although his conviction was overturned 70 years after his death.
Facebook user Chiadikaobi O. Atansi posted several images, including Stinney’s mugshot and three still images from a movie based on his life, along with the following message:
We will never forgive, and we will never FORGET !!
George Stinney Jr, of African descent, was the youngest person to be executed in the 20th century in the United States. This young black was only 14 years old at the time of his execution by electric chair. 70 years later, his innocence has just been officially recognized by a judge in South Carolina.
From his trial to the execution room, the boy always had his Bible in his hands while claiming his innocence. George was unfairly accused of murdering two White girls (Betty 11 and Mary 7), whose bodies had been found not far from the house where the boy and his parents lived. At that time, all the members of the jury were white. The trial lasted 2H30, and the jury made the decision of his sentence after 10 minutes.
The boy’s parents, threatened, were barred from taking part in the trial after being ordered to leave the city. Prior to his trial, George spent 81 days in detention without the possibility of seeing his parents for the last time. He was imprisoned alone in his cell, 80 kilometers from his hometown. His hearing of the facts was done alone, without the presence of his parents or a lawyer.
George’s electrocution charge was 5,380 volts on his head. We let you imagine what such an electric shock can have on a young child’s head. We will never forgive and will never FORGET!
Continue To Rest In Power Odogwu
George Stinney Jr, of African descent, was the youngest person to be executed in the 20th century in the United States. This young black was only 14 years old at the time of his execution by electric chair. 70 years later, his innocence has just been officially recognized. pic.twitter.com/kUZK7u9KRy
— Myaa Shakur ✊🏿 (@iam____Myaaaaa) August 16, 2018
All these posts included still images taken from a scene from the 1991 TV movie Carolina Skeletons, which told Stinney’s story (via a protagonist named “Linus Bragg”) and was based on David Stout’s 1988 novel of the same name.
On the whole, the account presented in Atansi’s Facebook post was very accurate, correctly recounting the major facts of the case and describing several smaller details with a similarly high degree of accuracy. The only significant shortcoming in the account was the presentation of a 2014 court ruling in South Carolina as if it had happened in 2018, and a failure to clearly explain that the judge did not officially “recognize” Stinney’s “innocence,” but rather vacated his conviction on the basis that his trial and sentencing had violated his constitutional due process rights.
The following description of the basic facts of the case is taken from the ruling of Carmen Tevis Mullen, the 14th Judicial District judge in South Carolina who vacated Stinney’s conviction in 2014. It contains descriptions of violence against children that some readers might find upsetting:
On the afternoon of March 23, 1944, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 7, failed to return home in the rural town of Alcolu, South Carolina. The next morning, their bodies were discovered lying in a ditch. Both girls’ skulls had been crushed and one of the girls’ bicycle was lying on top of their bodies, its front wheel detached. George Stinney Jr. was taken into custody a few hours later and confessed to murdering the girls within hours of his apprehension.
The Defendant was tried for the murder of Betty June Binnicker on April 24, 1944, just one month after being taken into custody. An all-white male jury was selected and the trial concluded that same day during a special term of court with Judge P.H. Stoll presiding. Appearing on behalf of the State was Solicitor Frank McLeod, who presented evidence from law enforcement that the Defendant confessed to the crime. While law enforcement testified that a confession occurred, no written confession exists in the record today …
The capital murder trial lasted one day. As such, I am best left to conclude that few or no witnesses were called by the Defense and little to no cross examination conducted. After ten minutes of deliberation by the jury of twelve, the Defendant was found guilty of the murder of Betty June Binnicker and was that same day sentenced to death by electrocution. No appeals were filed and no stays of execution were requested by counsel. On June 16, 1944, George Stinney Jr. was executed. He was fourteen years old.
Judge Mullen vacated Stinney’s conviction some 70 years after his death. Her rationale (set out in detail in her ruling) was that Stinney’s constitutional right to due process had been violated on multiple grounds: his confession was likely coerced; his lawyer did woefully little to defend him, especially by failing to call witnesses on his behalf or to appeal his conviction; the selection of the jury did not mitigate against the possibility of racial prejudice playing a role in the verdict; and the execution of a 14-year-old child in and of itself constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Strictly speaking, Judge Mullen did not exonerate Stinney when she vacated his conviction, despite the 2018 social media claims that “his innocence has just been officially recognized by a judge in South Carolina.”
Mullen issued something called a writ of coram nobis, which had been requested by Stinney’s surviving siblings. (The state of South Carolina contested their petition, claiming that they lacked legal standing to bring it, and that too much time had passed since the conviction.) Coram nobis is a relatively rare type of ruling in which (roughly speaking) a court is presented with facts about an earlier case which, if known at the time, would have been so significant as to make the verdict unreliable or invalid. When such facts emerge, a plaintiff or defendant typically brings a motion for a new trial, but coram nobis is used (in some courts in the United States) when this alternative is not available.
In the case of George Stinney, a new trial could not take place because Stinney and potential witnesses are dead, very few documents from the original case have survived, and physical evidence no longer exists. Hence the Stinney family’s motion for coram nobis on his behalf.
In ordering the writ of coram nobis and vacating Stinney’s conviction, Judge Mullen quoted earlier case law and stipulated that her decision was “not on the grounds that the judgment against him was wrong on the merits, but that the courts have failed in a capital case to discharge their proper functions with due regard to the constitutional safeguards in the administration of justice.”
Despite this distinction between an exoneration and a vacation of conviction, a strong belief that Stinney was innocent of the murders of Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames is prevalent. His siblings (now aged in their 70s and above) all provided him with an alibi during depositions for the 2014 motion, saying that he had been at home during the time the murders took place and therefore could not have committed them. (Stinney’s lawyer Charles H. Plowden and local police failed to interview any of the boy’s family at the time of the murders.)
Furthermore, the family’s lawyers speculated that the murder weapon might have been a “drift pin,” a “twelve-inch long, two-inch wide piece of metal or iron that hitches railroad cars together.” They invited a local railroad engineer to testify about the implement, which he said could commonly be found on “log-carrying railroad cars” or lumber storage yards. This detail dovetailed with a separate theory that the real killer might have been the son of a local sawmill boss (a prominent white man), on whose property the girls’ bodies were found.
The claim that Stinney was the youngest person to be executed in the United States in the 20th century appears to be accurate. A black teenager named Fortune Ferguson is often reported to have been 13 years old in 1923 when he was convicted and sentenced to death for the rape of an eight-year-old girl in Florida, but his execution (also by electrocution) was stayed and delayed for four years. Furthermore, his age at the time of his conviction is in doubt: one 1924 newspaper article placed him at 17 years old, while a 1927 article put his age at 22 years old at the time of his death.
The viral Facebook post is also accurate in its claim that Stinney’s family was forced to leave the town of Alcolu after George’s arrest. In her 2014 ruling, Judge Mullen wrote: “Collectively, the testimony [of Stinney’s siblings] recounts that the Stinneys were forced to immediately leave town to Pinewood and then Sumter following the Defendant’s apprehension, fearful that locals would seek violent revenge against the Stinney family.” Speaking to NBC News in 2011, Stinney’s brother Charles said, “We had to leave that same night.”
We can’t say whether Stinney “always had his Bible in his hands” from the moment of his conviction up until his death, but multiple news articles from 1944 certainly noted that Stinney brought a Bible with him into the execution chamber on 16 June. The Greenville News, for example, reported that Stinney had “a Bible under his arm” as he sat in the electric chair.
It’s not clear what was meant by “[Stinney’s] hearing of the facts was done alone, without the presence of his parents or a lawyer.” We know that the teenager did have a lawyer, Charles H. Plowden, but he appears not to have served his client in any meaningful way, declining to challenge the selection of an all-white jury, failing to bring any witnesses or present any evidence on behalf of Stinney in what was a very short trial, and then opting not to appeal Stinney’s conviction and death sentence.
The current applied to Stinney’s body during his execution amounted to 4,300 volts in total according to a contemporary news article, not far off the “5,380 volts” claimed in the Facebook post. Charles Kelly, whose father was a longstanding chaplain at the South Carolina State Penitentiary and witnessed 34 executions, wrote about Stinney’s death in his book Next Stop, Eternity:
The Columbia Record reported the executions of June 16, 1944. The article stated, “Young Stinney was such a small boy that it was difficult to adjust the electrode to his right leg. After the first charge of 2,400 volts was sent coursing through his body, the death mask slipped from his face and his eyes were open when two additional shots of 1,400 and 500 volts followed.