The Child in the Electric Chair (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

In the decades that followed George Stinney's execution, numerous other teenagers would also be executed though George Stinney is still the youngest.   His name would crop up in newspaper stories about teenagers being executed but few questions would be raised about his guilt or whether he had actually received a fair trial.   Any attempt at reviewing the circumstances of his death tended to be blocked by the few surviving court documents relating to the case.

In 2013, decades after George Stinney Junior's execution, supporters began pushing for his case to be reopened.  George Frierson, a school board member who had grown up in Alcolu hearing stories about the case, began pushing for exoneration.  "Why was George Stinney electrocuted,"  he asked in a 2013 media interview. "The state can't produce any paperwork to justify why he was."   Frierson and his fellow supporters collected affidavits from surviving members of Stinney's family.  One sister, Annie Rufner who was seven at the time, reported that her brother was arrested by police shortly after the girls' bodies were found and they wouldn't see him again until after the trial.  In the same news story, Charles Stinney, George's brother said that he had no problem recalling the events of 1944 vividly because, "March 24, 1944 and the events that followed were our personal 9/11,"  

Reopening the case proved to be especially difficult due to the lack of court records.  Aside from a few cryptic notes, nothing seemed to survive about Stinney's confession and how it was actually obtained.  Stinney's supporters suggested that the police may have coerced the confession either through threats or the promise of ice cream.  On the other hand, the hundreds of letters and telegrams sent to Governor Olin Johnson in the weeks leading up to Stinney's execution had all been carefully preserved.   They offer a sobering glimpse of the kind of pressure Johnson faced, both for and against commuting Stinney''s sentence. 

Along with the various appeals to save the 14-year-old Stinney's life, there were also numerous calls for his death   Many of these letters used extremely crude language and suggested that the execution would "send a message" to intimidate other black youths from following his example.  Some of the notes were written anonymously and referred to George Stinney as a "little animal" who deserved to die.  One particularly vicious note to the governor said, "Yes, he should die.  We have children and that's the way we feel.  We are ashamed of our whites who are sticking up for the negroes and we are proud of you."  The widespread fear of black-on-white crime that gripped South Carolina society at the time seems evident enough and it reinforces the politics that played into Johnson's decision not to commute Stinney's sentence.   MV5BMTQ3MzI3MzczOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjM2MDU2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_[1]

Perhaps not surprisingly given the new publicity over the case, new evidence soon came to light.  Pathologist Peter Stephens reviewed the autopsy report on the slain girls and concluded that they could not have been killed by a railroad spike as the prosecution argued.  Instead, he suggested they had been killed by a hammer (contrary to Stinney's confession).   Also, statements by people who had found the victims' bodies cast doubt on whether George Stinney, who had only just left school when the bodies were found, would have had time to place them in the ditch near his home.   There were also rumours of a "deathbed confession" from a white man who had allegedly confessed to the killings though Stinney's lawyers were never able to confirm this.

Finally, on December 17, 2014, Judge Carmen Mullen formally vacated George Stinney's conviction.  In her ruling, Judge Mullen pointed out that Stinney had not been adequately defended in court and available evidence raised the possibility that he had been coerced into confessing.   That, combined with his age at the time of execution, meant that his sentence represented "cruel and unusual punishment."    Still, in handing down her ruling, Judge Mullen was careful in pointing out that Stinney's exoneration should not be applied in other cases of black defendants who may have been mistreated by the legal system.   Though the government of South Carolina adamantly opposed exoneration for Stinney, the prosecutor decided against appealing the decision or retrying the case given the absence of surviving evidence.

While the decision was treated as a victory by George Stinney's family and supporters, surviving family members of the two murder victims openly criticized Judge Mullen's ruling.    Despite the weakness of the case, they remained convinced that Stinney was guilty of the murders.   Frankie Bailey Dyches, Betty June Binnicker's niece, shared her own memories about Stinney with reporters arguing that he had "ample time to tell the truth if he were coerced."   "It's always been one-sided," she complained. "They’re trying to make it about race, and it wasn’t. It’s not that we believe hearsay that we grew up with all these years.  We’ve done our research.  We’ve talked to people that were actually there. The people that read these articles in the newspaper don’t know the whole truth.”  She insisted that "even the black people knew he was guilty" and that Stinney had a reputation for threatening behaviour.   As for his death, family members openly admitted that he shouldn't have been executed but it was "the way things were done back then." 

In the aftermath of George Stinney's exoneration, a new film about the case, 83 Days, went into production though its final release date has not be set so far.   Numerous books have been written about George Stinney including the 1988 murder novel, Carolina Skeletons, which won the Edgar Allen Poe award for best first novel.   Helped by publicity over George Stinney's case, surviving members of the Stinney family have launched a legal fight asking for financial compensation.

Whatever the actual facts of the case, George Stinney's trial and execution represents one of the most appalling examples on record of the lynch mentality that characterized race relations in the early 20th century.   Almost as soon as he was accused, his fate was sealed with no chance at anything like a fair trial.   Virtually everyone associated with the trial, including Governor Olin Johnson, demonstrated how widespread institutional racism actually was back then.  While there is no way that a child Stinney's age could be executed today, that is scarcely any comfort to his family and those who remember this case.

So, was George Stinney actually guilty or not?  You be the judge.

 

           

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