The rush-job conviction of 14-year-old George Stinney, Jr., exonerated 70 years after execution
Two young white girls had been found brutally murdered that morning, beaten over the head with a railroad spike and dumped in a water-logged ditch. He and his little sister, who were black, were said to be last ones to see them alive. Authorities later released the older Stinney and directed their attention toward George.
“[The police] were looking for someone to blame it on, so they used my brother as a scapegoat,” his sister Amie Ruffner told WLTX-TV earlier this year.
In that year, 1944, he was executed, the youngest person in modern times to be put to death. On Wednesday, George Stinney, Jr., was exonerated.
His case has tormented civil rights advocates for years. Here’s how it happened.
Stinney was questioned in a small room, alone — without his parents, without an attorney. (Miranda v. Arizona, the landmark Supreme Court case guaranteeing the right to counsel wouldn’t be decided for another 22 years.) Police claimed the boy confessed to killing Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 8, admitting he wanted to have sex with Betty. They rushed him to trial. After a few hours of testimony and 10 minutes of deliberation, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to die by electrocution, “until your body be dead in accordance with law. And may God have mercy on your soul,” court documents said. His court-appointed attorney never sought an appeal.
The initial trial, the evidence — or lack of it — and the speed at which he was convicted seemed to illustrate how a young black boy was railroaded an all-white justice system. During the one-day trial, the defense never called a witness. There was no written record of Stinney’s confession. Today, most people who could testify are dead and most evidence is long gone.
New facts in the case prompted Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen to exonerate him on Wednesday 70 years after his execution.
“I can think of no greater injustice,” she wrote.
The case has haunted the town since it happened but garnered new attention when historian George Frierson, a local school board member who grew up in Stinney’s hometown, started studying it six years ago and pushing for Stinney’s exoneration. Since then, Stinney’s former cellmate issued a statement saying the boy denied it. “I didn’t, didn’t do it,’ ” Wilford Hunter said Stinney told him. “He said, ‘Why would they kill me for something I didn’t do?’ ”
In 2009, a Stinney family attorney planned to file statements from family members but held off because he heard that a man in Tennessee, who was not related to Stinney, could offer an alibi for the youth. The man never came forward. It reportedly delayed the new trial, but didn’t stop it.
“South Carolina still recognizes George Stinney as a murderer,” defense attorney Matt Burgess told CNN earlier this year. “We felt that something needed to be done about that.”
New details started to emerge. Stinney’s family said his confession was coerced and that he had an alibi that had never been heard. That alibi was his sister, now Amie Ruffner, 77. She said she was with him at the alleged time of the crime, tending to their family’s cow near some railroad tracks by their house when the two girls rode over on their bicycles.
“They said, ‘Could you tell us where we could find some maypops?’ ” Ruffner remembered them saying, according to WLTX-TV. “We said, ‘No,’ and they went on about their business.”
Stinney’s brother, Charles, who was 12 at the time, said in a statement that his family never came forward because they were afraid.
“George’s conviction and execution was something my family believed could happen to any of us in the family. Therefore, we made a decision for the safety of the family to leave it be,” Charles Stinney wrote in his sworn statement.
“It is my professional opinion, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the confession given by George Stinney Jr. on or about March 24, 1944, is best characterized as a coerced, compliant, false confession,” Amanda Sales told the court, according to NBC News. “It is not reliable.”
Still, some argued that Stinney’s admission of guilt was clear.
In a handwritten statement, a law enforcement officer named H.S. Newman wrote, “I arrested a boy by the name of George Stinney. He then made a confession and told me where to find a piece of iron about 15 inches long. He said he put it in a ditch about six feet from the bicycle.” Few other documents from that time remain.
James Gamble, whose father was the sheriff at the time, told the Herald in 2003 that he was in the back seat with Stinney when his father drove the boy to prison.
“There wasn’t ever any doubt about him being guilty,” he said. “He was real talkative about it. He said, ‘I’m real sorry. I didn’t want to kill them girls.’ “Indeed, just 84 days after the girls’ deaths, he was sent to the electric chair. Now, an appeal from a death sentence is all but automatic, and years, even decades, pass before an execution, which provides at least some time for new evidence to emerge.
Stinney was barely 5-feet tall and not yet 100 pounds. The electric chair’s straps were too big for his frail body. Witnesses said he had to sit on books to reach the headpiece. And, when the switch was flipped, the convulsions dislodged the large mask, exposing his tearful face to the crowd.
Frierson and Stinney’s family have maintained that they never wanted a pardon.
“There’s a difference: A pardon is forgiving someone for something they did,” Norma Robinson, George Stinney’s niece, told the Manning Times. “That wasn’t an option for my mother, my aunt or my uncle. We weren’t asking forgiveness.”
Instead, they sought what’s called a “writ of coram nobis.” It means, in essence, mistakes were made.
Lindsey Bever is a national news reporter for The Washington Post. She writes for the Morning Mix news blog. Tweet her: @lindseybever