Advocates push for retrial to clear name of 14-year-old 'killer' executed in 1944
George Stinney, Jr. was 14 years old when South Carolina executed him in 1944, making him the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. He was convicted of murdering two girls. Now there's a move to clear his name.
Charles Stinney said that his parents and George's siblings were afraid to speak out when the 14-year-old was arrested, and for many years afterward.
By Hannah Rappleye, Lisa Riordan Seville and Mark Potter, NBC News
95-pound boy wore stripes as the sheriffs walked him to the electric
chair, sat him on books to prop him up, and electrocuted him in June
Nearly 70 years after the execution of 14-year-old George
Junius Stinney Jr. for the killing of two white girls, advocates have
taken the unprecedented step of asking a South Carolina court to grant a
new trial to clear his name.
Stinney is often cited as the
youngest person executed in this country in the 20th century. For years,
family, advocates and lawyers have said that South Carolina put an
innocent boy to death.
"We just want what is right," said Ray
Brown, a filmmaker who is writing a script based on Stinney's story and
recently joined efforts to persuade the state to grant a new trial.
The effort stems from the brutal slaying of Betty June Binnicker, 11,
and Mary Emma Thames, 8, in the spring of 1944. Stinney and his younger
sister were the last witnesses known to have seen the girls alive.
Police in Alcolu, S.C., arrested Stinney the day the girls were found,
and an all-white jury convicted him on the basis of what police
described as a confession. Less than three months after the crime,
Stinney went to the chair.
"We want them to consider the
possibility that he was wrongly convicted and executed for something he
did not do," said Brown, who describes the case as a symbol of our
history's deep racial injustices. "You have to correct these kind of
things if you ever expect any change."
The request for a new trial
is the culmination of a lengthy investigation, started years ago by
local historian George Frierson, whose work brought attention to what he
calls the barbaric death of a child.
"This was a courthouse
lynching," said Frierson. "I want his name cleared, and I want an
apology from the state of South Carolina for putting a child to death."
Stinney's execution was legal at the time in South Carolina, where 14
was the age of criminal responsibility. In 2005, the U.S. abolished
execution of children under 18.
Brown followed in Frierson's
footsteps, beginning his own investigation, as well as petitioning Gov.
Nikki Haley for a pardon. The motion for a new trial marks a shift in
strategy to correct what advocates say is a grave wrong.
numerous disappointments, blind alleys and dead ends, we believe that we
now have sufficient evidence to support a motion to seek judicial
review of George Stinney Jr.'s trial," local attorney Ray E. Chandler
said in a statement from Coffey, Chandler and McKenzie. The governor's
office did not respond to a request for comment.
The quest for a
new trial faces several legal hurdles. South Carolina law allows a
defendant to ask for a retrial if new evidence is uncovered, but it
requires the motion be filed within a year of the discovery. Attorneys
in Stinney's case have based their request on affidavits from two of his
siblings who provide an alibi for him at the time.
states that the affidavits taken in 2009 constitute new evidence because
the family's fear at the time prevented them from speaking out.
"I wish I could have come forward much sooner," said Charles Stinney,
George's brother, who is now in his 80s. "George's conviction and
execution were something my family believed could happen to any of us in
the family. Therefore, we made the decision for the safety of the
family to leave it be."
It also attributes the delays in
requesting a retrial to efforts to obtain a statement from another
witness who eventually refused to come forward, citing fear of the Ku
"You have to explain why you couldn't have presented
the evidence before — that's a big problem," said Kenneth W. Gaines, a
professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. "It's
probably a long shot but I give them credit for trying."
effort to win a new trial is a one-shot deal. Such requests are a
discretionary matter in the state, Gaines said. Once the decision is
made, it cannot be appealed.
A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, which would likely be
tasked with arguing the state's case in the event of a retrial, said the
office has not received notice of the filing and does not comment on
ongoing or potential litigation.
In a 2011 interview with NBC
News, Ernest "Chip" Finney, the solicitor for Clarendon County, where
the trial took place, said that nearly all evidence and transcripts in
the case had either disappeared or been destroyed, meaning it would
almost certainly be impossible to prove Stinney's innocence or guilt by
reopening the investigation.
"I would need to have something in
order to move the case back to court, something more than just the
emotion in the community about it," Finney said at the time.
The emotion still echoes through Alcolu.
the quintessential small company town, Alcolu was split in half. White
workers lived on one side of the tracks and black families, including
the Stinneys, lived on the other. All lived in cabins owned by the local
timber mill, and used coins stamped with an "A" to shop at the company
On the day of the murders, two little white girls --
Binnicker and Thames -- crossed those tracks looking for wildflowers.
Stinney and his younger sister, Amie, sat on the railroad tracks after
school as their cow Lizzie grazed. The girls wheeled their bicycle up to
them and asked where they could find maypop flowers, Amie remembered.
was strange to see them in our area," she said in an affidavit filed as
part of the case, using her married surname, Ruffner. "Because white
people stayed on their side of Alcolu and we knew our place."
stories from the time said when the girls were reported missing, mill
owner B.G. Alderman organized a search party of about 200 people,
including black residents. They found the children's bodies the next
day, when, in the early morning light, they followed a trail of small
footsteps in damp soil.
The girls had been struck repeatedly in
the heads and dumped in a watery ditch. Their bike was smashed and
thrown atop their bodies, the flowers they had gathered scattered across
Stinney and his older brother were arrested that
night. His brother was released. George was not. Law enforcement
reported that George had immediately confessed to killing the girls with
a railroad spike.
In a 2009 affidavit, Ruffner said she was with her brother that day, and he could not have committed the murders.
his siblings said nothing then, apparently fearing for their lives. The
night George was arrested, his father was fired and the Stinneys fled
from their company house.
"For my family, Friday March 24, 1944
and the events that followed were our personal 9/11," said brother
Charles Stinney, now in his 80s, said in an affidavit in 2009.
days after the murders, George Stinney stood trial in Clarendon County.
Some 1,500 packed the small courtroom to watch, news reports said.
presented two conflicting statements made by Stinney: one that he had
killed the girls in self-defense and the other, that he had chased the
girls into the woods and attacked them. No records remain of either
The boy's court-appointed attorney did not present a defense.
minutes after retiring to deliberate, the jury declared Stinney guilty
of murder. Soon after, a judge signed his death sentence.
On June 16, 1944, four months shy of his 15th birthday, the state of
South Carolina electrocuted Stinney. Reporters present at his death
noted the executioners had difficulty strapping the electrodes to the
boy's small frame. They sat him on a book to prop him up high enough to
take his life.
Stinney's attorney, a tax commissioner with
political ambitions but no trial experience, failed to file a notice of
appeal, which would have at least delayed the boy's execution. Several
local churches and the NAACP petitioned then-Gov. Olin Johnson to stop
the execution. He declined.
The Stinneys were forced to stand by as the state put their son to death.
parents were simply helpless to do anything about it," said Charles
Stinney in his affidavit. "They had no money. The law was against them,
and they were black in the American South in 1944."