american history black history

The legalised lynching of George Stinney

'Why would they kill me for something I didn't do?' The tragic story of George Stinney and one of America's greatest miscarriages of justice.

On 16th June 1944, fourteen year old George Stinney was executed for the murder of two young girls.  The youngest person executed in US in modern history, George was too small to fit into the electric chair. A bible was stacked onto the seat, so the electrodes could reach his head. Once sat down, his legs dangled from the chair. He couldn’t make out any last words, just cry. And when the guards put a mask over his head, it was too big. Slipping off once the electricity was turned on, to reveal his terrified tear strewn face. He was declared dead after eight minutes and buried in an unmarked grave.

His legacy should have been a footnote in history, only mentioned as ‘the youngest person executed’. But it wasn’t.

Because George Stinney had been innocent. The victim of a state sanctioned lynching.

George 2

George grew up in the small town of Alcolu, in South Carolina. The second oldest of five, his dad worked in the local mill. As did most of the town’s residents. Every day white and black workers would head to the mill, the black workers through one entrance, white’s through another. They’d watch the clock and wait for the whistle to blow. Then pack up their stuff and head home to opposite sides of the town’s railroad tracks. The white side and the black side.

Alcolu was segregated, but that wasn’t unusual for the time. South Carolina had long had segregation laws in place, and as recently as 1932 these had been updated to ban a black kid from attending a white school, punish inter race marriages with up to 12 months jail time, and prevent black and white workers from sharing a bathroom, with the threat of 30 days hard labour. For George, this was just how things were. It was life.

So, when on March 23rd 1944, two little white girls rode their bikes over to George and his little sister Aime, to ask where they might find some wild flowers, George knew not to engage too much. Just in case. He just shrugged and said he didn’t know. The girls nodded and went back to their wildflower hunt and George and his sister went back to grazing the family’s cows.

But the girls never came home. Betty Binnicker, 11, and Mary Thames, 7, were missing and soon the whole town was out looking for them.

George and his dad joined the search and after talking to other volunteers, it quickly became clear that both George and Aimes must have been the last people to see Betty and Mary. Suspicions were raised, but there was still hope that the girls might have just gotten lost and would turn up.

However, the girl’s bodies were soon found. They’d been beaten to death and left in a shallow ditch. The town was shocked. Things like this didn’t happen in Alcolu. They wanted answers, they wanted a swift end to this; a culprit caught and punished – now.

George, it seemed, was the obvious suspect and so on March 25th, officers came to arrest him, along with his older brother John. The police quickly let John go, but they kept George. They questioned him without the presence of a lawyer, or his parents. Sadly, there are no clear records of what went on in that integration room, we only know that George was in there, alone, for hours. And that when the officers emerged, they had a confession.

According to police, George had caught up with the girls shortly after they’d ridden away, bludgeoned them to death and dragged their bodies to a nearby shallow ditch. That was the confession; although there was one glaring issue – the confession, hadn’t been signed by George.

Still, news that George had confessed got out and a mob formed outside the jail, armed and ready to lynch him. However, they were to be disappointed. He’d already been transferred to Columbia penitentiary, far out of their reach. But that didn’t stop the angry crowd from turning on George’s family, who were forced to flee town in fear for their lives.

Article from St Petersburg Times, Flordia,
Article from St Petersburg Times, Flordia, March 27th, 1944

Despite his young age, George was banned from seeing his family. They were terrified for him – of course they were – but they knew that George had been at home at the time of the murders. He hadn’t followed the girls after they rode away, he’d stayed with his sister, then gone back home. Multiple members of the family could vouch for that – surely that meant something.

Less than a month after George was arrested, the trial began on 25 April 1944. And it was a sham.

There are no transcripts from the three hour long trial, but here is what we do know.

African Americans were banned from entering the court room, even the Stinney family weren’t allowed in. The jury was all white and it’s foreman had actually led the search party who’d found Betty and Mary’s bodies and was related to the family that owned that land.

Then there was George’s state appointed lawyer; who specialised in tax. He’d never been involved in a trial like this and it showed. The lawyer didn’t call any witnesses for the defence, despite knowing that multiple people could offer an alibi. He also didn’t cross examine prosecution witnesses, failed to mention that George hadn’t signed his confession, or that it had been obtained in dubious circumstances.

The states case was equally shaky. There was no physical evidence that could unequivocally link George to the murder. Not to mention that although the medical examination of both girls showed no sign of rape or sexual assault, the prosecution repeatedly stated that George had raped at least one of the girls.

That wasn’t all. The location where the bodies had been found, was relatively free of any blood (which was confirmed by the states witness) making it unlikely that George had murdered the girls close by and then dragged their bodies there. Not only that, but it would have been almost physically impossible for 5”1, 90-pound George, to over power both girls and then drag their bodies.

None of that mattered. The jury took just 10 minutes to announce their verdict. Guilty. Just like that, fourteen year old George Stinney was sentenced to death.

George Stinney, center right, enters the 'death house' in Columbia Penatuary
George Stinney, center right, enters the ‘death house’ in Columbia Penatuary, along with a fellow inmate

George’s lawyer didn’t file an appeal, despite the many issues with the trial, which would normally have warranted an appeal, if not a mistrial.

The Stinney family felt helpless, but they prayed for a miracle. The NAACP got involved and they rallied supporters to write to South Carolina Governer, Olin D Johnson, for clemency, for a stay of execution, for a retrial, for anything. But their pleas fell on deaf ears. With Johnson writing back:

‘It may be interesting for you to know that Stinney killed the smaller girl to rape the larger one. Then he killed the larger girl and raped her dead body. Twenty minutes later he returned and attempted to rape her again, but her body was too cold. All of this he admitted himself.’

The writing was on the wall. George Stinney was going to be executed. George himself couldn’t understand how this was happening. Asking his cellmate:

‘Why would they kill me for something I didn’t do?’.

George never stopped protesting his innocence. But just 83 days after his initial arrest, George Stinney was executed.

George Stinney mug shot
George Stinney’s mug shot

But George’s family never stopped seeking justice for their son and brother. In the early 2000’s they were joined in their fight by a local historian, George Friarson, as well as several lawyers who offered their help pro-bono. Together they worked to gain evidence which would show how George’s case had been mishandled, the gaping injustices and lack of evidence from his trial and to finally, get the case reopened.

In 2014 George Stinney’s case was in court once more. This time, the trial took two days. Evidence was revaluated, the alibi’s provided by George’s surviving family members included and there was a new witness, Wilfred Hunter, who’d shared a cell with George and stated that George not only professed his innocence, but that his confession had been forced by the officers interrogating him.

Finally, the verdict came in. George Stinney’s conviction was declared legally void. It had taken 70 years, but George Stinney was finally proven innocent.

George Stinney's grave
George Stinney’s grave, recently updated with the 2014 court verdict

This was intersting where can I find out more? Well I would definatley look at the ACLU’s campaign around race and the death penalty. Because sadly, the miscarriage of justice that happened to George Stinney, is far from alone and still prevelant today.

One comment

  1. An absolutely terrible situation to hear about, but thank you for a well-researched article. It’s important we bring attention to the all the awful things people of color have faced and let everyone know black lives truly matter. I recently found your page after starting my own site dedicated to American history and I love the information you bring to the table. It’s important for all of us to emphasize the importance of black history. Looking forward to more!

    Liked by 1 person

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