Seeking justice for a 14-year-old boy executed in 1944

George Stinney Jr.
George Stinney Jr.

A 14-year-old black teenager executed by the state of South Carolina nearly 70 years ago received another day in court Tuesday. A hearing this week will determine whether a South Carolina circuit court judge could re-open the case and ultimately overturn a guilty verdict for the youngest person to be executed in the United States in the last century. 

In March 1944, an all-white jury decided in under 10 minutes to convict 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. of murdering two white girls in Alcolu, S.C. Three months later, Stinney was sent to the electric chair. 

The decision to open a new trial rests on the shoulders of Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen. She clarified the purpose of the hearing in her opening remarks, saying that the trial will not determine whether Stinney was guilty or innocent but whether he received a fair trial. 

"What can I do? What can I rectify?" Mullen said Tuesday, the first day of the hearing. "And even if we did retry Mr. Stinney, what would be the result? Again, none of us have the power to bring that 14-year-old child back."

Most of the evidence, including Stinney's confession and a transcript of the murder trial, has disappeared and Stinney's lawyers and supporters have demanded justice for the boy, arguing that his conviction was clouded by racial discrimination. Lawyers working for Stinney's family, who are leading the fight to exonerate the teenager, have presented new evidence, including sworn statements from his relatives and a pathologist refuting the autopsies of both girls.

"The trial lasted only one day. The lawyer didn't ask any questions on cross-examination which is stipulated to by the state. They called no witnesses, and they offered little or no defense in this case," Judge Mullen told the court.

11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and 7-year-old Mary Emma Thames were found, beaten, in a watery ditch beneath a bicycle path, according to a medical report. Hours later, police took Stinney into custody. Stinney's younger sister, Amie Ruffner, who was 7 at the time, testified Tuesday and recounted how she hid in a chicken coop when several white officers arrived at their home. 

Ruffner told the court how she and her brother saw the two girls the day they died and that they were alive when she and George left them to tend to the family cow. 

"[The police] were looking for someone to blame it on, so they used my brother as a scapegoat," Ruffner said.

Officers at the time claimed Stinney confessed to the murder, but there is no written record of it. According to reports, Stinney's trial lasted about 3 hours and the defense presented no witnesses, no physical evidence, and did not file an appeal. A jury was composed of 12 white men.

On June 16, 1944 the 95-pound Stinney was executed in the electric chair. Newspaper accounts, according to the AP, reported that the chair did not fit his body. 

Stinney's body was buried in an unmarked grave. The hearing will continue Wednesday, and Judge Mullen must decide if Stinney's guilty verdict will stand.