Attorneys will present evidence before the state of South Caroline they feel warrants a new trial for George Stinney, Jr., a 14-year-old Black teenage who was put to death for the murders of two White girls nearly seventy years ago.
The case is extraordinarily unique for several reasons. For one, Stinney was the youngest person executed in the United States last century, but there is no official record of the day-long trial in which the boy’s fate was decided in a mere ten minutes after the defense and prosecution rested their cases. It is widely believed that Stinney did not commit the murders and was instead used as the scape-goat for a town blindly seeking revenge for the girls.
Today, defense attorneys for the boy’s family will try and prove that Stinney’s conviction was tried under the most egregious of circumstances and that a new trial is in order. But their efforts to reopen the case is a long shot at best, according to news reports.
Defense attorneys will have to prove to a circuit court judge in Sumter, S.C., that Stinney’s case was mishandled back in 1944, according to Solicitor Ernest “Chip” Finney III, the prosecutor who will appear at the hearing this week for the state.
“We’re talking about procedures and rules 70 years ago that none of us were around to understand,” said Finney, son of the first black chief justice on the state’s Supreme Court. “There’s not going to be enough evidence to open it up.”
But Steven McKenzie, one of the lawyers representing the Stinney family, said time should not be an issue.
“This is a horrific case,” he said. “Whether justice is 70 years old or one year old or one month old, we think justice needs to be done.”
Here is some background on the case:
When two White girls, 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and 8-year-old Mary Emma Thames, went missing in Alcolu, S.C., on March 22, 1944, after riding in to town on their bicycles, Stinney was arrested the following day for allegedly murdering them.
The girls had allegedly passed Stinney’s home, where they asked him where they could find a particular kind of flower. Once the girls did not return home, hundreds of volunteers looked for them until their bodies were found the next morning in a ditch.
Because Stinney joined the search team and shared with another volunteer that he had spoken to the girls before they disappeared, he was arrested for their murders.
Without his parents, Stinney was interrogated by several White officers for hours. A deputy eventually emerged announcing that Stinney had confessed to the girls’ murders. The young boy allegedly told the deputies that he wanted to have sex with the 11-year-old girl, but had to kill the younger one to do it. When the 8-year-old supposedly refused to leave, he allegedly killed both of them because they refused his sexual advances.
To coerce his confession, deputies reportedly offered the child an ice cream cone.
There is no record of a confession. No physical evidence that he committed the crime exists. His trial — if you want to call it that — lasted less than two hours. No witnesses were called. No defense evidence was presented. And the all-White jury deliberated for all of 10 minutes before sentencing him to death.
On June 16, 1944, his frail, 5-foot-1, 95-pound body was strapped in to an electric chair at a state correctional facility in Columbia, S.C. Dictionaries had to be stacked on the seat of the chair so that he could properly sit in the seat. But even that didn’t help. When the first jolts of electricity hit him, the head mask reportedly slipped off, revealing the agony on his face and the tears streaming down his cheeks. Only after several more jolts of electricity did the boy die.
While no surviving participants from the trial are around to testify, people who claim to have known Stinney are. In a recent interview with the Post and Courier, friends of the slain girls said that they are convinced that Stinney was guilty:
Sadie Duke said she always believed Stinney was guilty because only a day before, he had threatened her and her friend Violet Freeman as they went to a church to collect water.
“He said, ‘If you don’t get away from here and if you ever come back, I will kill you,’” Duke said.
Evelyn Roberson, who was 15 at the time of the crime, said her husband often fought with Stinney as they tended cows near the town. “They called the (Stinney) boy ‘Bully’ because he was so bad to everybody,” she said. “Everybody he met he wanted to fight.”
Roberson said Stinney first confessed to the crime to his grandmother, who called the authorities. “I don’t feel like it’s an open case,” she said. “I think he did it, and he should have gotten punished for it and he did.”
Bob Ridgeway of Manning said he was 13 at the time and remembers his father joining the search party for the girls, and the mill whistle blowing for a long time, signaling that their bodies were found and the search was over. “There was never any question in anybody’s mind to my knowledge that he did it,” he said.
Stinney’s sister, Amie Ruffner, now in her 70s and living in New Jersey, is expected to testify to the contrary. She is expected say that there was no way he could have committed the murders because he was home with her on the day the girls died, Matthew Burgess, one of the attorneys seeking a new trial, told The Post and Courier.
Ruffner, 77, who was not asked to testify during the original trial, Ruffner told WLTX-TV that she and her brother did see the girls on the day that they disappeared because they asked them about some flowers in the area.
“They said ‘could you tell us where we could find some may pops,’ Ruffner recalled. “We said ‘no,’ and they went on about their business.” She says her brother never left the house after they left, but the cops would eventually pick up Stinney from their home for the murders.
“I never saw my brother alive again from that day they took him out of our yard and out the house,” Ruffner said.
He was tried and executed for the crimes three months later. Despite what she has gone through over the decades, Ruffner harbors no anger at anyone. She just wants justice for her sibling.
“Even if you think I’m wrong, my brother did not do it, and I hate no man,” Ruffner said.
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