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How young can a convicted murderer be to be executed?
In 1786, twelve-year-old Hannah Ocuish was hanged in Connecticut for the murder of a six-year-old girl while James Arcene, a Cherokee man, was hanged in 1885 for a robbery and murder he committed when he was ten years old (Arcene was 23 at the time of his execution). Other executions involving youths under the age of sixteen continued to be held well into the 20th century despite calls for legal reform. Well into the 20th century, many U.S. states set a minimum age of ten years for legal execution.
Which brings us to the case of 14-year-old George Stinney.
Born in 1929, George Junius Stinney Junior was the eldest child of an African-American sawmill worker living with his family in the South Carolina town of Alcolu. On March 23, 1944, two white girls, eleven-year-old Betty June Binnicker and eight-year-old Mary Emma Thames, went missing in an area not far from where the Stinney family was living. The girls had been riding their bicycles and searching for wildflowers. George and his sister Katherine later reported having spoken to the two girls briefly as the passed by the Stinney home. Search parties discovered the bodies of the girls in a nearby ditch. No evidence of sexual assault was found except for slight evidence of genital bruising in the older girl's body but both of them had been killed by blunt force trauma to the face and head. Since the murder occurred in the "black part of town" and rumours of black men preying on innocent white girls were rampant during that era, police seemed determined to prove that the person responsible for the killings was black.
There is no way to tell what led police to suspect fourteen-year-old George Stinney in the first place except that he allegedly made some remarks that raised suspicions. After being taken in for questioning, he was "persuaded" to confess to the crime and to tell police where to find the murder weapon - a 14-inch railroad spike. George's parents were not allowed to see him and he was kept isolated from his family, or anyone else who might have helped him, until the day of his trial. Because of the very real risk of lynching, he was held in a jail fifty miles away.
Almost immediately after his arrest, details of George's confession were leaked to newspapers which quickly declared him guilty even before his trial. George's father was fired from his job and the family was forced to leave town, never to return. Despite their pariah status, the family attempted to defend George though the case was thoroughly stacked against him. Not only did the trial take onlt one day, but there was no physical evidence linking George to the murder and no written transcript of his alleged confession. Instead, the court accepted the testimony of three police officers who provided the confession verbatim. The defense attorney, state tax commissioner Charles Plowden (who had been appointed by the court) raised no objection about how the confession was obtained. Also, no witnesses were called on Stinney's behalf and no questions were raised about how a fourteen-year-old could have committed such a brutal killing. Stinney's parents and other members of Alcolu's black community insisted that the absence of blood found at the scene strongly suggested that the girls had been killed elsewhere and dumped to cast suspicion on a black person but this theory was rejected by the court as well.
After only two and a half hours of deliberation, the trial went to the all-white jury which only took ten minutes to find him guilty with no recommendation for clemency. Interestingly enough, Stinney was only found guilty of killing one of the girls (the evidence against him was deemed not strong enough to convict him for both). The presiding judge then imposed the death sentence which went over well with the more than 1000 white people crowding the courtroom (no blacks allowed). The date of execution was set for June 16, 1944. Years later, when Charles Plowden was asked why he hadn't filed an appeal in Stinney's case, he commented that there would have been no reason since the family had no money to pay for a new trial. George Stinney's younger sister Katharine, who later became a schoolteacher in New Jersey, recalled that her family had no experience with the legal system that might have helped. All that her mother was able to do was to pray.
The only real recourse the Stinney family had was to appeal to then-governor Olin D. Johnson to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. Representatives from the CIO Tobacco Growers Union, the National Maritime Union, and various ministry groups also pleaded for clemency in the case. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sent a telegram protesting that Stinney's execution would be a "blot" on South Carolina's record. The governor, who publicly stated that he reviewed the court records and found nothing wrong with the trial process, ordered the execution to proceed as scheduled. In a rather bizarre reply to some of the ministers pleading on Stinney's behalf, Johnson stated that he had nothing to do with the case and that even the "colored people of Alcolu would have lynched this boy themselves had it not been for the protection of officers." Exactly how the governor came to this conclusion is still a mystery. He even visited Stinney in his death cell on the evening of his execution to tell him that he had no intention of intervening. Given that he was running for re-election in the openly segregated state, commuting the sentence would likely have antagonized his voters.
George Stinney was executed at the Central Correctional Institute in Columbia, South Carolina on June 16 at 7:30 PM. Only eight-three days had passed since the bodies of his alleged victims were found. He declined to make any statement before his execution which proceeded as scheduled. Family members of the two girls were in attendance. He was so much smaller than the usual condemned prisoner that guards had difficulty placing him in the electric chair. The adult-sized face mask didn't fit the 90-pound Stinney and slipped off after the first jolt of electricity hit. It took three jolts of electricity in three minutes before the presiding doctor was able to declare him dead. George Stinney was the 179th person to die in the electric chair since it was first used in 1912.
Though the case would polarize race relations in South Carolina for many years to come, there was no immediate reaction to Stinney's execution. But that would change...
To be continued
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