Friday, June 16, 2017

Frying a Child Who Was Innocent—Legal Lynching in South Carolina

14 years old in South Carolina in 1944 and accused of a double murder and rape, George Junius Stinney, Jr. had no chance of a fair trial.


Note—Yesterday we discussed a lynching—one of literally hundreds of murders of Blacks that was unusual only for occurring in Duluth, Minnesota, so far north the some of the mob wore overcoats in June.  Today we turn our attention to a case that proves that “swift justice” achieved the same results legally.  And the victim this time was the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th Century.
The slender 14 year old was led to the execution chamber at South Carolina’s Central Correctional Institution in Columbia on June 16, 1944.  He was so small that he did not fit well into the adult size electric chair.   The Bible he had carried with him to his doom was taken from him and used as an impromptu booster seat.  Officials struggled with the straps that held him down because they could not be properly tightened down to his scrawny arms and legs.  The face mask hung loosely.  With the first jolt of 2,400 Volts the mask was knocked off of his face revealing his wide open, tear filled eyes, contorted features, and frothy drool.  One wrist broke free of the restraints as his body spasmed violently.  Two more jolts were administered before George Junius Stinney, Jr. was finally declared dead after four minutes.

By the way, Stinney was Black.  But you probably knew that even if you never heard this story before.  
He was killed just 83 days after two white girls,  11 year old Betty June Binnicker, and 8 year old Mary Emma Thames were found murdered in Alcolu, South Carolina, a timber mill company town.  Shortly before the girls were last seen, witnesses said they saw Stinney chatting with them.  That encounter was the only evidence linking the boy with the crime.  There were no witnesses to the murder and no physical evidence of any kind.  Three police officers would testify that he confessed the crime to them, which Stinney would deny at his trial.  His alibi was summarily dismissed as a “lie Niggers tell” and no effort was made to confirm it.
11 year old Betty June Binnicker was the oldest of two white girls who went to pick flowers and were never seen alive again.  Her skull was caved in and there was evidence she was raped.
The sketchy known facts of the case were that the two girls set off on their bicycles on Thursday, March 24 to pick flowers.  It was Easter break.  On their way they passed the Stinney house where George was in the yard with his sister and asked him if he knew where they could find maypops, an early blooming purple vine flower in the passion flower family.  In the small town of just a few hundred residents, almost all of them employed directly or indirectly by the Alderman mill and related companies, and Black and White residents separated only by the railroad tracks, the children knew each other, at least by sight.  The girls rode off and were not seen alive again.
When the girls did not return home by evening, an intense search was launched.  Their bodies were found the next morning in a shallow ditch partially covered by water.  Both had received blunt force trauma to the head and face smashing their skulls.  Although no weapon was found the coroner later concluded that a hammer was the likely cudgel.  It had to have been wielded with great force.  June Binnicker suffered bruising around the vagina and was probably raped.
Police quickly zeroed in on Stinney who was arrested within hours.  Some time elapsed between the arrest and when he was brought to county jail during which time the arresting officer claimed he had confessed.  No further investigation of the crime was conducted.
George Stinney, Jr. and a not much older unnamed inmate being brought into the North Carolina Death House to await execution.
A Coroner’s inquest quickly concluded that Stinney was the likely culprit.  He was indicted and brought to trial with dizzying speed.  The trial itself, conducted, of course, before an all-White jury lasted only a day.  The prosecution called the police to testify about the alleged confession despite the fact that no written record of the confession had ever been made.  The appointed defense counsel, a tax commissioner who was running for higher office, did not challenge the testimony or present any evidence or witnesses himself.  The whole trial took less than two and a half hours.  The Jury formally retired and returned in less than 10 minutes with a verdict of guilty of first degree murder.  The judge wasted no time in passing sentence.
The South Carolina press and even many of the state’s beleaguered liberals proclaimed satisfaction that “justice has been allowed to run its course” and that the boy had not been dragged from jail and lynched.  But it was rough justice and pretty much just a lynching under cover of law.  
A gruesome but nessesary reminder--the State of North Carolina carefully photographed Stinney's severed head to document the execution.  Deep burns are plainly vissible.
The boy’s father, George, Sr. had immediately been fired from his job in the mill when his son was arrested and the family was so threatened that they fled town and went into hiding.  George Jr. never saw any of them again.  They dared not attend the trial or even visit him in jail.  The boy had to endure his ordeal utterly alone.
The case quickly faded from public awareness and was tucked away in that pocket of convenient amnesia that was a characteristic of the Jim Crow South and the decedents of the perpetrators.
In 1988 interest in the case was revived by David Stout’s Roman a clef novel Carolina Skeletons, which won the Edgar Alan Poe Award for Best First Novel.  A TV movie adaptation was made in 1991 with Lou Gossett and Kenny Blank as the boy seen in flashbacks.  Blank was nominated for an award as Best Young Actor in a TV Movie.  In both the book and the movie and investigation made by a family member years after the crime and execution suggest that the boy was innocent and that powerful local forces were out to prevent the truth from being told.
That theory began to have some support in 2004 when local historian George Frierson began an investigation with the assistance of volunteer lawyers.  Eventually Frierson claimed “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.”  The alleged culprit was a member of a prominent but unnamed local family and at least one of his relatives was on the initial Coroner’s Jury.  Although that person and family have not been publicly identified because of threatened legal action, it is said that many old timers can figure it out from Frierson’s description.
George Fierson, second from right, was the local historian who investigated the case and uncovered evidence that Stinney was innocent. Lawyers Steve McKinzied, Shaun Kent, and Ray.Chandler worked on the appeal that ultimately cleared the boy. 
In 2013 lawyers who had worked with Frierson, Steve McKinzie, Matt Burgges, Shaun Kent, and Ray Chandler filed an appeal for a new trial after attempts to get relief through the state’s Pardon and Parole Board were rebuffed.
In December 2014 despite a vigorous defense of the original prosecution and verdict by South Carolina’s Black Solicitor General Ernest A. Finney III Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen vacated the original conviction.  She found that no defense was offered the jury and in the absence of corroboratory evidence the confession was likely coerced and inadmissible.
The late ruling for justice was not universally acceptedSurviving relatives of the girls and of the police officer involved all publicly stand by the original verdictGenerally favorable press coverage of the decision resulted in waves of racist howls anguish and some not-so-veiled-threats in the on-line comments in newspaper and TV news web pages.


1 comment: