At only 14 years of age, George Junius Stinney, Jr. was the youngest person ever executed in the United States. Weighing barely 90 lbs., Stinney was so small, he required a booster seat to reach the headpiece of the electric chair. Stinney had been convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of two young white girls, 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and 8-year-old Mary Emma Thames. With no physical evidence in the case and only the testimony of three southern police officers claiming Stinney had given a confession, the all-white jury convicted Stinney in less than ten minutes.
The deaths of Betty Binnicker and Mary Thames
The deaths of Betty and Mary occurred on March 23, 1944 in Alcolu, South Carolina, deep in the Jim Crow South. The girls were last seen near Stinney’s home and Stinney admits that the girls had stopped to ask him if he knew where they could find maypops flowers. A search party found the girls’ bodies in a ditch, bruised and battered by what is presumed to have been a hammer or railroad spike.
The investigation and arrest
George Stinney was arrested and not allowed to see his parents until after his trial. Arresting officer H.S. Newmay said:
“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 where he said he put it in a ditch about six feet from the bicycle.”
Stinney was questioned, alone, and without an attorney.
Meanwhile, his father was fired from his job at the local sawmill and the family was forced to immediately vacate company housing. In fear for their safety, the Stinney family fled that night to Pinewood in Sumter County, where Stinney’s grandmother lived.
The George Stinney murder trial and execution
Stinney’s entire trial, including jury selection, presentation, and conviction, took place in a single day. Stinney’s defense counselor was a local tax commissioner who was campaigning for election to a local political post. Three police officers testified that Stinney had confessed to the crime, but Stinney denied the accusation and authorities admitted they had no written records of the purported confession.
Stinney’s counsel did not call any witnesses, did not cross-examine witnesses, and offered little or no defense. The entire trial presentation took only two hours. The jury was all-white (black people were not allowed to vote at the time) and reached their guilty verdict in 10 minutes. Stinney’s defense attorney chose not to appeal.
George Stinney was executed on June 16, 1944, at 7:30 PM. He walked to the execution chamber with a Bible under his arm. Standing five feet tall and weighing around ninety pounds, officers could not secure his frail body to the frame of the electric chair. His Bible had to be used as a booster seat.
When 2,400 volts of electricity hit him, the adult-size mask fell from his face “revealing his wide-open, tearful eyes”. According to George Frierson, a local Alcolu historian who researched the case in depth over 50 years later:
“There has been a person that has been named as being the culprit, who is now deceased. And it was said by the family that there was a deathbed confession.”
In January 2014, Stinney’s then-77-year-old sister Amie Ruffner told CBS affiliate WLTX that the two girls her brother was executed for killing, came by their house asking where they could find flowers and then left. She said she and her brother told them “No” then went back to tending to the family’s cow. Her testimony was never allowed in the trial.
Exoneration – 70 years later
On December 17, 2014, Stinney’s conviction was posthumously vacated by a circuit court – 70 years after his execution – on the grounds that his Sixth Amendment rights had been violated.
Years later, George Burke Jr., the son of a wealthy white businessman, has been the subject of speculation as a possible suspect for the murders. Burke Jr. died in 1947, aged 29. Stinney’s mother had worked for the Burke family for a brief period. Stinney’s sister recalled that her mother had once come home saying that Burke Sr. had made advances to her, and their father had told their mother to no longer go back.
According to a Alcolu resident investigating the case, Burke’s son recalled that his grandmother had told him that his father had picked the girls up in his lumber truck by his grandmother’s house on the day of the girls’ murders. Burke’s father was one of the men who discovered the girls’ bodies. He also served as the foreman of the coroner’s jury. George Stinney’s sister had previously testified that after the two girls had asked about maypop flowers, a lumber truck drove down the road.
Pictorial gallery – documents
George Stinney’s death order
George Stinney appeal
George Stinney appeal – statement of facts
In-Article Image CreditsRecord of prisoners awaiting execution - George Stinney via South Carolina Department of Archives and History with usage type - Public Domain
George Stinney fingerprints in the record of prisoners awaiting execution via South Carolina Department of Archives and History with usage type - Public Domain
South Carolina Penitentiary death record of George Stinney Jr. via South Carolina Department of Archives and History with usage type - Public Domain
State penitentiary Columbia South Carolina death certification George Stinney via South Carolina Department of Archives and History with usage type - Public Domain
Indictment File of George Stinney via South Carolina Department of Archives and History with usage type - Public Domain
Indictment File of George Stinney - morgue report Emma Ruth Thames and Betty June Binnicker via South Carolina Department of Archives and History with usage type - Public Domain
George Stinney Death Certificate via South Carolina Department of Archives and Histor with usage type - Public Domain
State of South Carolina vs. George Stinney, Jr. 1944 via South Carolina Department of Archives and History with usage type - Public Domain
Coroner stating Mary Emma Thames and Betty June Binnicker died at the hands of George Stinney Jr via South Carolina Department of Archives and History with usage type - Public Domain
via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
George Stinney entering prison (right) via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Public Domain
George Stinney mugshot 1944 Prisoner #260 via South Carolina Department of Archives and History with usage type - Public Domain
Featured Image CreditGeorge Stinney mugshot 1944 Prisoner #260 via South Carolina Department of Archives and History with usage type - Public Domain