Wilford Hunter, Stinney’s cellmate said, “[George] said, ‘Why would they kill me for something I didn’t do?’”
The trial took 2 hours, the jury took 10 minutes, he was put to death at 7:30 p.m. on June 16, 1944 for the murders of two girls. George Stinney was just 14 and needed a booster seat for the electric chair. Just 81 days had passed between the murders and his execution.
It took 4 minutes for him to die.
And 70 years for justice.
Police came for George Stinney, 14, when his parents weren’t home. As his sister hid in the chicken coop, they took George and his older brother, Johnnie, into custody. Two young girls had been found brutally murdered, beaten over the head with a railroad spike and dumped in a ditch. Stinney and his sister were the last people to see them alive.
“[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.
They later released Johnnie Stinney with no charges.
Calling it a “great and fundamental injustice,” a South Carolina judge on Wednesday vacated the 1944 murder conviction of the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the last 100 years. Judge Carmen T. Mullen of Circuit Court ruled that the prosecution in the case failed to safeguard Stinney’s rights during his confinement, trial, and execution.
First, the all-white jury could not be considered a jury of peers, the Judge wrote and his court-appointed attorney did “little to nothing” to help defend him (including not cross-examining witnesses) as he was seeking local office at the time. Due to his political aspirations, he never appealed Stinney’s conviction either. Today, an appeal from a death sentence is all but automatic and decades can pass before execution allowing further investigation.
Stinney’s confession was likely coerced, “due to the power differential between his position as a 14-year-old black male apprehended and questioned by white, uniformed law enforcement in a small, segregated mill town in South Carolina.”
The ruling was a rare application of coram nobis (“mistakes were made”), a legal remedy that can only be applied if all other remedies have been exhausted and only when a conviction is based on an error of fact or fundamental unfairness.
“I am not aware of any case where someone who was convicted has had the trial conviction and sentence vacated after they’d been executed,” said Miller W. Shealy Jr., a professor at the Charleston School of Law.
Ernest A. Finney III, the solicitor who had opposed the request on the state’s behalf argued during the hearings that the conviction was valid under the legal system at the time.
Stinney’s two sisters and his brother testified that they had spoken to the two girls, Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 8, who were riding their bicycles. Two white men who had helped search for the girls and a cellmate of Stinney testified that on numerous occasions Stinney asserted his innocence and said he was forced to confess.
Judge Mullen emphasized in her ruling that the case should not be a standard resort for families grieving over decades-old injustices, “The extraordinary circumstances discussed herein simply do not apply in most cases.” However, the problems in the Stinney case were not uncommon in the past especially during the Jim Crow-era of the South.
Stinney’s case has haunted civil rights advocates for years.
He was just 14, questioned in a small room, alone, no parents, no attorney (no one in the U.S. was guaranteed representation until 1963). Police said he confessed to killing the two young girls claiming he wanted to have sex with the older one (there was no record of his confession). Fourteen was the age of adult criminal responsibility in 1944. The case lacked all evidence and the speed of the trial seemed to imply that Stinney was railroaded. The case was so quick that no transcript from the trial even exists.
“I can think of no greater injustice than the violation of one’s Constitutional rights which has been proven to me in this case,” Mullen wrote.
The case garnered new attention when local historian and school board member of Stinney’s hometown, George Frierson, began studying the case. In 2009, an attorney for Stinney’s family planned to file statements, but learned that a man in Tennessee, who was not related to Stinney, could offer further alibi evidence. The man could never be found. It wouldn’t be until 2015 that the case would be heard.
“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.”
Amie Ruffner said that she was with him at the time of the murder, but was never taken seriously. They were watching their family’s cows near the railroad tracks by their house when the girls rode by, “They said, could you tell us where we could find some maypops? We said no and they went on about their business.” After Stinney’s arrest, for fear of lynching, Stinney’s family fled the area.
“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 said.
Early this year, the case gained new steam. A judge agreed to hear new testimony.
A child forensic psychiatrist testified that Stinney’s confession wasn’t reliable, “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.
Some still argue that Stinney’s confession is trustworthy.
H.S. Newman, a law enforcement officer at the time, wrote in a statement, “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.”
James Gamble, the son of the sheriff at the time, said that he was in the back seat with Stinney when he was transported to prison, “There wasn’t ever any doubt about him being guilty. He was real talkative about it. He said, ‘I’m real sorry. I didn’t want to kill them girls.”
“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…”
“They weren’t trying to railroad every black person associated with Alcolu and these little girls. They made a determination based on facts we don’t have today that George Stinney should be detained,” Solicitor Ernest “Chip” Finney III argued in the hearings.
“It’s never too late for justice,” Ray Brown, who is producing a film based upon Stinney’s case called 83 days said, “There’s no statute of limitations on justice. One of the things I can say about South Carolina and I can give them credit for—is that they got it right this time. During a period of time in our nation where we seem to have such a great racial divide, you have a southern state that has decided to admit they made a mistake and correct it.”
“I’m happy for this day because its been such a long time coming, but then I cringe when I go back into that childhood and think of George back in the day. He had no one to help him…,” Kathrine Robinson, 80, Stinney’s sister said of the ruling.
The prosecution has decided not to appeal the decision.