George Junius Stinney, Jr. (October 21, 1929 – June 16, 1944) was, at age 14, the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century.
Stinney, an African-American youth from South Carolina, was convicted of the first-degree murder of two pre-teen white girls: 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker, and 8-year-old Mary Emma Thames; however, no physical evidence existed in the case, and the sole evidence against Stinney was the circumstantial fact the girls had spoken with Stinney and his sister shortly before their murder, and the testimony of three white police officers, who testified at a trial which lasted barely two hours, that Stinney had confessed to the murders. He was executed by electric chair.
Since Stinney’s conviction and execution, the question of his guilt, the validity of his confession, and the judicial process leading to his execution have been criticized as “suspicious at best and a miscarriage of justice at worst”.
Background: Stinney was arrested on suspicion of murdering two girls, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 8, in Alcolu, Clarendon County, South Carolina, on March 23, 1944. Alcolu was a small, working class, mill town, where whites and blacks were separated by railroad tracks. The girls had disappeared while out riding their bicycles 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 local name for passionflowers. When the girls did not return, search parties were organized, with hundreds of volunteers. The bodies of the girls were found the next morning in a ditch filled with muddy water. Both had suffered severe head wounds.
Trial: Following Stinney’s arrest, Stinney’s father was fired from his job. Stinney’s parents and siblings were given the choice of leaving town or being lynched. The family was forced to flee, leaving George Stinney with no support during his 81-day confinement and trial.
The entire Stinney trial, including jury selection, took one day. Stinney’s court-appointed defense counsel was a tax commissioner campaigning for election to local political office. Stinney’s lawyer did not challenge the three police officers who testified Stinney confessed to the two murders, despite this being the only evidence presented by the prosecution. The police did not make written records of Stinney’s purported confession, and at trial, Stinney denied confessing to the crime.
The jury at Stinney’s trial consisted entirely of white people due to racial segregation. Other than the testimony of the three police officers, at trial, prosecutors called three inconsequential witnesses: the man who discovered the bodies of the two girls, and the two doctors who performed the post mortem examination. Stinney’s counsel did not call any witnesses. Trial presentation lasted two-and-a-half hours. The jury took ten minutes to deliberate, after which they returned with a guilty verdict.
Execution: The execution of George Stinney was carried out by Old Sparky at Central Correctional Institution in Columbia, on June 16, 1944. At 7:30 p.m., Stinney walked to the execution chamber with a Bible under his arm, which he later used as a booster seat in the electric chair. Standing 5 foot 2 inches (157 cm) tall and weighing just over 90 pounds (40 kg), his size (relative to the fully grown prisoners) presented difficulties in securing him to the frame holding the electrodes. Nor did the state’s adult-sized face-mask fit him; as he was hit with the first 2,400 V surge of electricity, the mask covering his face slipped off, “revealing his wide-open, tearful eyes and saliva coming from his mouth…After two more jolts of electricity, the boy was dead.” Stinney was declared dead within four minutes of the initial electrocution. From the time of the murders until Stinney’s execution, 81 days had passed.