Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Child Killing

Alcolu is a small town off Route 521 in Clarendon County, South Carolina, about 50 miles east of Columbia. The first African-American woman to play tennis at Wimbledon, Althea Gibson, was born here. So was Peggy Parish, famous author of children’s books. Five governors of South Carolina were also born and raised here (http//www.clarendoncounty.com). Forest products are a major output of the region, along with tobacco, cotton and corn. Cucumbers are grown in abundance in Clarendon County. It is primarily an agricultural area that features only one small city: Manning, whose population in 1944 was less than 3,000. Essentially, the county was, and still is, a quiet farming community whose routine was rarely, if ever, interrupted by such a climatic event as child murder.

On the sunny afternoon of March 24, 1944, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and her friend , Mary Emma Thames, age 8, had just left their homes to pick flowers. They were alternately walking and riding Betty’s bicycle along the railroad tracks that ran through Alcolu. The girls often played in this area on the opposite side of the town. By any measure, it was a beautiful spring day: the trees just beginning to bud, the first flowers of the season blooming among the tall grass along the tracks. As they ran and skipped their way through the grass, they saw a young black man along the same path. He also lived in this small lumber-producing town and both girls knew him. Everyone knew everyone else in Alcolu, it was that kind of place. However, within minutes, both girls lay dead on the ground, their skulls brutally bashed in by a huge railroad spike. Their bodies were dragged through the grass and dumped into a small ravine. Immediately after the murders, the killer hid the bloody weapon in the bushes and began the leisurely walk home. He seemed unconcerned and it is doubtful that he truly understood the repercussions of what he had done.

The killer of these children was a child himself. His name was George Junius Stinney Jr., 14 years old, the illiterate son of a local mill worker. And incredibly, in less than 90 days, George would meet death himself, tears streaming down his face, strapped to the electric chair inside the bleak walls of the Central Correctional Institution in Columbia. But the public would barely notice his death. For in June 1944, the country had its eyes fixed firmly upon the beaches of Normandy, where a million American sons were locked in the desperate battles of D-Day while the fate of a world hung in the balance. These were hard times in America. The daily newspapers were filled with graphic stories of killing and destruction on a scale that can scarcely be imagined today. No one had time or compassion for a black teenage killer of little white girls. Nevertheless, history would be made at the Central Correctional Institution on June 16, 1944. For on that day, George Junius Stinney Jr., age 14 and 7 months, would become the youngest person to be legally executed in the United States during the 20th century.

The history of juvenile execution in America reads like a novel with no plot: it seems to have no sense of purpose or destination. Since the early 17th century, 356 juvenile offenders have been executed in the United States (Grossfield, p. 4). USA Today reports: “the first known execution of a juvenile on these shores was in 1642: Thomas Graungery, 16, of Plymouth Colony, Mass. was hanged for bestiality” (Edmonds, p. 11). Some executions become appalling to us when we consider the age of some of these defendants. Contrary to what is generally believed, however, capital punishment in colonial America was a controversial issue. Although it was common to hang offenders in England for crimes like burglary, robbery and theft-related offences, this was rare in America (Friedman, p. 42). Lawrence Friedman writes in Crime and Punishment in American History: “All things considered, the colonies used the death penalty pretty sparingly” (p. 42).

And it must be said that any interpretation of past executions from the 18th and 19th century has to be viewed within the time frame they occurred. For it seems unrealistic to apply today’s standards, values and beliefs to a society that existed hundreds of years ago which can have no valid comparison to today’s world from a social and legal perspective. During colonial times the age of the defendants was often not considered in certain crimes. For example, in the State of New York, two young girls identified only as “Bett” age 12, a slave belonging to Phillip van Rensselear and “Dean”, age 14, a slave belonging to a Volkert Douw were executed on March 14, 1794. They were accused and convicted of starting a fire that burned down a large portion of the City of Albany on November 17, 1793 (Reynolds, pg. 384). It is difficult to identify the youngest person legally executed in American history, but it surely may be a Cherokee Indian who was hanged for murder in 1885. He was ten years old (Grossfield, p. 4). In modern times, there have been relatively few juvenile executions although 70 juvenile offenders presently sit on death row in America. In 1988 a ruling in the Supreme Court “prohibits the death penalty for juvenile offenders whose crimes were committed before they were 16” (Grossfield, p. 5). Prior to 1988, though it was not frequent, execution of children younger than 16 was permitted.

Within a few hours of the Alcolu murders on March 24, 1944, the families of the missing girls were already frantic. It was very unusual for the girls not to return home on time. Since they were always playing in the woods and were familiar with the local countryside, it was unlikely they were lost. The local lumber mill, Alderman Lumber Company, organized a search party that consisted of their employees and almost everyone who lived in Alcolu. The operation was under the direction of B.G. Alderman, owner of the lumber company, and included both blacks and whites. Although they searched throughout the night, they could not find the missing girls. Then, at about 7:30 in the morning of the next day, some of the men found small footprints in the soft ground. They followed the trail and soon discovered a pair of scissors. It was already known that Betty June had taken these same scissors from her home to cut flowers. Within minutes, the search party came upon a water filled ditch, surrounded by thick, thorn covered bushes. The bushes showed signs of being crushed. In the ditch, the faint outline of a child’s bicycle could be seen under the water. “There’s the girls!” one of the searchers screamed. Scott Lowden, a member of the search party, jumped into the muddy hole and the bodies of the missing girls were finally found. Betty June had severe head wounds in the back of the skull. Mary Emma had five separate skull fractures. The cause of death in both cases was later determined to be severe trauma to the head. The girls had been viciously beaten with a heavy, blunt object.

After a few hours of investigation, the local sheriff deputies located and arrested George Stinney Jr. who neighbors had seen in the area where the girls were found. He was brought to the local sheriff’s office where police interrogated him. Since 1944 was long before the Warren Court era, there were no Miranda Warnings, even to a juvenile. The interrogation continued without a parent being present or attorney representation. Clarendon County Sheriff's Deputy H. S. Newman and a representative did the questioning from the Governor’s Office, Officer S.J. Pratt ( The State, March 26, 1944). In less than one hour, Stinney confessed to the crime.

Deputy H.S. Newman later described the event for the court: “I was notified that the bodies had been found. I went down to where the bodies were at. I found Mary Emma she was rite at the edge of the ditch with four or five wounds on her head, on the other side of the ditch the Binnicker girl, were laying there with 4 or 5 wounds in her head, the bicycle which the little girls had were side of the little Binnicker girl. By information I received I arrested a boy by the name of George Stinney, he then made a confession and told me where a piece of iron about 15 inches long were, he said he put it in a ditch about 6 feet from the bicycle which was lying in the ditch” (from Deputy Newman’s written statement, March 26, 1944). Later that same day, Stinney voluntarily led police to the crime scene, a short distance outside of the town, where the murder weapon, a large railroad spike, at least 14 inches long, was recovered.

Immediately, there was grief and outrage in Alcolu. Never before had such a horrendous crime occurred in Clarendon County. Mill workers were especially angered since both girls had relatives who worked at the mill. Passions became further inflamed when details of the crime, supplied by Stinney, became public. The young defendant told police that he killed Mary Ellen because he wanted to have sex with Betty June, the older girl. Angry townspeople and mill workers gathered together in Alcolu and they quickly formed into a mob. On the night of March 26, 1944, a mob of angry whites headed for the Clarendon County jail to administer mob justice. Although, lynching was actually rare in the 1940s, the bitter memories of Southern vigilantism from the 1920s and 30s are a sad part of America’s history. But sheriff’s deputies wisely escorted Stinney out of the county jail to the City of Columbia in adjoining Sumter County where he was held in a more secure facility for his own safety.

On April 24, 1944, just one month after his arrest, Stinney went on trial for his life. The trial would take place at the county seat in the City of Manning. Since angry residents already ran the Stinney family out of town, George had virtually no one on his side. The county court appointed a local attorney to assist in his defense. He was a 30-year-old aspiring politician named Charles Plowden. His goal in the case was simple: to provide a bare bones defense that would fulfill his responsibilities as a defense attorney and, at the same time, not anger the local residents. Since Stinney already confessed to the police and his guilt was firmly established, there was a general feeling that a trial was only a formal requirement.


By the time the trial began on April 24 at the Clarendon County Courthouse, the case was well known throughout the region, though outside the county, it was not widely reported. Outside South Carolina, it was virtually unknown. At the courthouse, it was standing room only, for well over 1,500 people had come to witness the spectacle. The stairways and hallways were filled to capacity. At 10 AM that morning, jury selection began. The State, published in Columbia, reported that “the state rejected four and the defense eight jurors before the jury was impounded at 12:30” (Rowe, p. 1). Even more ominous, however, was the jury composite. The panel consisted of 12 white men: no blacks and no women. Of course, racial make-up of a jury does not guarantee nor prevent justice. The only standard, in 1944 as well as now, is that a juror must be able to maintain a degree of fairness and objectivity that displays no bias to either side.
Given the publicity of the murders and the nature of the crime, the defense would certainly have been better served by a change of venue. Defense Attorney Charles Plowden, however, made no such motion. After a brief lunch, testimony began. “The trial began at 2:30 PM after eight minor cases had been disposed of in the morning” (The Daily Item, April 25, 1944).

Prosecutor Frank McLeod introduced Stinney’s statements of March 25 into evidence. In his initial statement to Deputy Sheriff Newman, Stinney explained that he was near his own home outside Alcolu when the oldest girl came along and asked him where she could pick some flowers. As he attempted to show the girls where the flowers grew, he said, the younger girl accidentally fell into a ditch. As he tried to help Mary Emma, both girls suddenly attacked him. Stinney admitted to hitting the girls with the railroad spike but claimed he did so in self-defense.

In the second statement, also given to Deputy Newman and Officer Pratt, Stinney gave a different version of the event. He told police he was indeed at his own home when he first saw the girls go by. He stated that he then followed the girls into the woods. Stinney said that he was interested in the older one, Betty June. In order to have Betty June to himself, he killed Mary Emma first by hitting her with the railroad spike. Betty June then attempted to run away and Stinney chased and caught her. When she continued to resist his sexual advances, he battered her with the same railroad spike. The State reported that Judge P. Stoll, who was from Kingstree, just 15 miles from Alcolu, halted the testimony to give women in the courtroom a chance to leave prior to “morbid details” (Rowe, p.1).

Scott Lowden, who found the dead girls, was called to the stand. He testified as to the condition of the bodies when they were found. He described a broken bicycle, which lay over the girls. The bodies were entangled with each other and lay submerged in the water where Stinney had dumped them. Betty June’s sister testified that it was she who gave the scissors to the girls to cut flowers.

The prosecution then called Dr. R. F. Baker to testify. It was Dr. Baker and Dr. A. C. Bozard of the Tuomey Hospital in Sumter who performed the post mortem examination of the dead girls. The autopsy reports were read into testimony: “We examined the body of eleven year old white girl. There was evidence of at least seven blows on the head of the child that seemed to have been made by a blunt instrument with a small round head about the size of a hammer. Some of these have only cracked the skull while two have punched definite holes in the skull” (Dr. Bozard’s autopsy report). Although Dr. Baker was unable to positively state that a rape or sexual assault had occurred, he did say that it was possible (Rowe, p. 1). Stinney, dressed in blue Junes, maintained a calm demeanor throughout the afternoon; “He remained calm and apparently little concerned” (Rowe, p. 1).

The presentation of the case, led by McLeod, moved quickly. Too fast, some say. Plowden and his assistant, attorney J.W. Wireman of Manning, presented no witnesses or evidence for the defense of Stinney. Instead, Plowden attempted to portray Stinney as a child who was too young, by law, to be held responsible for his crimes. In retaliation, the prosecution introduced Stinney’s birth certificate, which indicated he was born on October 21, 1929. Under South Carolina law in 1944, an adult was anyone over the age of 14. George Stinney was 14 years and five months old. That was the end of the case. It had begun at 2:30 in the afternoon and was over by 5:30 PM. “The jury retired at five minutes before five to deliberate. Ten minutes later it returned with its verdict: guilty, with no recommendation for mercy” (Brock, sec. D). The entire court proceeding from opening statements to sentencing had taken less than 3 hours. George Stinney “only when asked to arise and be sentenced, did he appear nervous and slightly excited” (Rowe, p.1). Judge Stoll sentenced him to die in the electric chair at Central Correctional Institution in Columbia, South Carolina on June 16, 1944. Stinney was quickly escorted out of court. He had less than two months to live.

The weeks passed as Stinney languished in prison. Some local organizations, like the N.A.A.C.P., churches and unions appealed to Governor Olin D. Johnston to stop the execution. The Daily Item reported on June 13, 1944 “The A.M.E. Church protested to Governor Olin D. Johnston in a telegram the imminent execution June 16 of a 14 year old Negro boy convicted of the murder of a young white girl”. A few days before the scheduled date, the Associated Press published a story on the Stinney case. The Governor’s office received hundreds of pleas to intervene in the name of mercy and fairness. Many cited Stinney’s age as an extraordinary factor that deserved consideration. One message received by the Governor’s Office read: “Child execution is only for Hitler” (Brock, p. D2). Others, however, had their own reasons for Stinney to die: “Sure glad to hear of your decision regarding the nigger Stinney” (Bruck, p. D2). Governor Johnston was unmoved by public sentiment and decided not to intervene. The Daily Item wrote: “The Governor said Friday he had studied the case and found no reason to intervene making this statement after the C.I.O., Tobacco Worker’s Union, the National Maritime Union and the White and Negro Ministerial Unions at Charleston asked him to commute the sentence to life imprisonment (June 13, 1944).

On the morning of June 16, 1944, a year in which 120 other convicts were executed in America’s prisons (U.S. Department of Justice), George Junius Stinney Jr. began his last walk on this earth at 7:30 AM. He carried a bible under one arm as he was escorted to the electric chair by prison guards. Stinney was of slight build. The teen-ager weighed just over 90 lbs and stood 5 feet, 1 inch tall. Since the electric chair was designed and constructed for adults, the attendants had a difficult time strapping him firmly into the seat. The mask that fitted upon the face also did not fit properly. Witnesses to the execution included Betty June’s father and brother Raymond. “Stinney refused to make any statement when given the opportunity by prison officials” (Daily Item, June 17, 1944). It was reported that the force of the electricity caused the mask to slip away from Stinney’s head, exposing his face to the gallery. Witnesses, it was said, would never forget the horror etched on Stinney’s childlike face in those final moments. He was pronounced dead less than four minutes later.

Although legitimate questions linger concerning the quality of Stinney’s defense team, no appeal was ever made. Politics may have played a strong role in that decision. In 1944, Plowden was scheduled to run for public office on the state level. There was speculation that he did not want to disrupt the community by appearing to be too enthusiastic about defending a killer who many felt deserved to die for his offense. Years later, in an interview, Plowden commented on the case: “There was nothing to appeal on” and added the Stinney family had no funds to continue the case (Bruck, sec. D).

Initially, it may appear that Stinney’s trial and execution were the product of a racist justice system, but it isn’t that final. Perhaps a case could be made as to the objectivity and fairness of the judicial process. The judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and jury all had friends, relatives and co-workers who lived in Alcolu. The Alderman Lumber Company employed hundreds of workers in the area who participated in the search. The crime and its lurid details were highly publicized and the racial nature of the case certainly influenced some of the community as well. However, nothing illegal was done during the investigation and prosecution of the case. All the procedures utilized by the police, courts, prosecution and prison system conform to the existing standards and legal requirements of the time and place. The court was well aware of Stinney’s age but the laws of the time allowed for a capital prosecution of a 14-year-old defendant.

The day after Stinney’s execution, June 16, 1944, a small, three-inch article appeared in The State newspaper, which contained the following line “Stinney, 14 years and five months old, was the youngest person ever to die in the chair”.

Incredibly, the crime for which he was executed had occurred just 81 days before, a time span that seems unthinkable to us today. In modern times, it is common for many years to pass before a convicted killer faces an execution. Stinney was buried in an unknown location and immediately forgotten by everyone except his family. In 1994, on the 50th anniversary of the case, Stinney’s sister, Catherine Robinson was interviewed. She stated that her brother wrote to her parents while he was on Death Row in Columbia, South Carolina. George told them he was innocent (The State, June 17, 1994).

However, Vermelle Tucker, Betty June’s sister, had this to say in the same article: “All my dad said was ‘Thank God he won’t do it to anybody else’” (The State, June 17, 1994). Indeed, he never would. But George Junius Stinney Jr., on June 16, 1944, became a tragic and unwilling fragment of American history as the youngest person legally executed in America during the 20th century.

Author: Mark Gado

15 comments:

borntomotivate said...

Your information is in accurate. The person who murdered those little girls got away with murder. George was with his sister when those little girls showed up by his house. They asked where they could find Maypop flowers. A boy of 90lbs killed two girls? Did the older girl stand there while he killed the younger girl? Two little girls that knew the woods. The older one didn't run while he murdered the younger one. There's more to this story. The murder of three children and unjustice will forever lie on the conscious of a country.

Anonymous said...

Bueno, creo que poco hay que agregar sobre lo que es la "justicia" en Estados Unidos, y mucho menos en aquella epoca, donde hasta la frontera de los años 60 la vida de las personas de raza negra fué un autentico horror. Las personas de color podran tener culpa en muchas cosas pero es innegable que aquel pais es racista y segregacionista, siempre lo fué, y está claro que si el joven George hubiera sido blanco, y sobre todo rico, nunca hubiera terminado en la silla electrica ... pero amigo, siendo negro, pobre, analfabeto y con un abogado sinvergüenza que pretendia de todo menos defenderle, poco podia hacer.
En fin, descansa en paz George, tú y todas las victimas inocentes de esa mal llamada "justicia" Made In Usa.

Anonymous said...

For someone who writes like an educated individual you are incredibly ignorant to think that race played no part in this child’s execution. A black male in the south during 1944 didn't stand a chance against accusations of killing little white girls. Being optimistic is one thing being ignorant of how things were at this time in history is something entirely different.

Anonymous said...

I agree with borntomotivate, you need to do a lot more research and use some common sense! Stop believing everything racist America has taught/told you to to believe.

Cat said...

What BornToMotivate said. Your article is misleading and upsetting. Stinney was with his sister, and many a grown-up has quickly confessed when pressured and/or threatened by the police. Stinney had inadequate legal representation, no knowledge of his rights and his family was run out of town to escape mob justice. There was no court transcript, so we don't know what happened at court, and there was no evidence linking Stinney to the crime. The cards were so stacked against this child that he hadn't a snowball's chance in hell of a fair trial, so your fictional insinuation that he did it is a giant leap and pretty insulting. Three kids got murdered and their killers got away with it.

Anonymous said...

South Carolina murdered an innocent child for the deaths of those young girls. Have you read how ridiculous your blog is? How could a 14 yr old of his weight and height be physically capable of such a crime?
And how dare you say he met them on that path and killed them? Were you there? get your facts straight. He was arrested and forced to admit to a crime that a white man committed.

sickntired said...

Lies, in addition to 2 white girls being murdered, a 14 year old boy was murdered by the racist state of SC. I don't know who wrote these lies but you should check your facts, a 90 pound, 5'1 14 year old murdered 2 people with a railroad stake that he couldn't even lift?

BlogTvDramaReports said...

I have read this story on another site which lead me here. I would like to do more research about his sister borntomotivate! That is a new factor that was not mentioned in the story on flickr or on this site as well. I can be reached at AuroraTheGoddess@aol.com. My boyfriend and I feel as though George was the scape goat and saw what had happened and was blamed for a crime he did not commit. It happens all of the time and its horrible for innocent people to face their death when God did not intend to.

Anonymous said...

After reading this I have to say he was Guilty. He lead the police to the killing site and the murder weapon. You people who watch too much CSI need to get a life.

Bookish Betty said...

"However, nothing illegal was done during the investigation and prosecution of the case. All the procedures utilized by the police, courts, prosecution and prison system conform to the existing standards and legal requirements of the time and place."

What is at stake for you in making this ludicrous and patently false claim with regards to this child murdered by his own government? Why the insistence on his guilt and the right behavior of those who conspired to kill the boy?

To interrogate a child who just happened to be seen somewhere near where two girls were killed without anyone else there should horrify you! How difficult would it have been to intimidate a 14 year old boy in a time where even he knew that his life was worth less than nothing to those harassing him into confession? I saw a freakin' DiscoveryID show a few months ago where a fine upstanding White man from the midwest confessed to killing his own child when the cops interrogated him for 20hours - then a lawyer, DNA evidence, and his wife's support proved him completely innocent! The look in his eyes as he explained what it was like in that tiny room with those cops will haunt me forever. And that was a White man in 2000s America! This was a Black child in 1940's America.

What is your motive here? Because instead of honesty, compassion, and reality (because for some reason you need to believe race played no role and this child was not assassinated) this story compels you to defend a system which has many, many instances in even our current day and age of people (of all races!) railroaded by police and imprisoned or put to death when they were really innocent. This country has often made victims of innocents due to a system where, once the police decide you are guilty, you can forget any chance of reprieve unless you have the money to buy proper evidentiary procedure.

As a teacher, as a woman, as a human being, I am unable to adequately express my distress, sadness, and terror at the thought that after casually googling this poor child's name, I come across a blog that holds our history and this child's life so cheaply as to proclaim what happened to him just.

The Only appropriate, sustainable Path our country can take is to Own and Accept our history in all of its horror and ugliness and use it as a guide to avoid replicating the same mistakes and abuses of the gift of life and location. This begins with avoiding the desire to make history nice and ignore the incomprehensibly terrifying fact that seemingly nice people killed a child because they could not look at him and see a child and a human, but only their own fear, prejudice and hatred.

Please, henceforth if you discuss this type of situation as "fair," and make pleas on behalf of the "differing social mores" of our past, remember that those "different" mores do not make the actions produced any less worthy of condemnation! Injustice of this kind, just because it's in a "different time" is no less deserving of the full extent our of horrified disavowal of this thinking. Human life should never be so casually written off that this is called fair or acceptable.

Anonymous said...

This is for Anonymous 28 September 2011 00:53 How can you say he's guilty? You actually call that a trial? Where was the evidence? Use the common sense God gave you. ITS IMPOSSIBLE for someone of his size to do what he was accused of. Ive read about this before and per the folks who executed him said the spike was between 45-50 lbs. More than half his weight. They took him to the crime scene. Then told him to say he did it for an ice cream. He would have said whatever they wanted him to say which is probably why his story kept changing. There's no way he could lift an object of that size over and over?? Grown men murdered all 3 of those children. They all experienced a violent death. And I beleive in my heart those responsible have or will pay for it because God will not let them get away with it. A child being executed by a mob of grown folks??? If it was my child, running me out of town would not have been an option. That mob of angry white folks would have had to kill me. Id rather be dead than hear that my innocent 14 yr old son has been executed by electrocution by the state for something he didnt do. Its a very sad story.

Anonymous said...

I was shocked and saddened by this story. Looking at ylthe young man's picture, my heart went out to him. You can see the innocence in his face. He didn't stand a chance and to be executed so quickly.... All I can do is shake my head and say God Bless him. Really a sad story and I can ONLY imagine the fear, pain and cruelty he went through during the trail and leading to his death.

Anonymous said...

I was shocked and saddened by this story. Looking at ylthe young man's picture, my heart went out to him. You can see the innocence in his face. He didn't stand a chance and to be executed so quickly.... All I can do is shake my head and say God Bless him. Really a sad story and I can ONLY imagine the fear, pain and cruelty he went through during the trail and leading to his death.

Anonymous said...

Junius Stinney Jr led police to the exact location of the actual murder weapon that was used in the crime. Who else but the murderer himself would be able to lead the police to the precise location of the actual weapon used in the crime?

Anonymous said...

I am from Manning, a few miles out of Alcolu. Of course this story isn't taught in our schools or when discussing our town's history. There are people still around that was alive during this era and remember the injustice of this case. There is currently a group fighting to have young Junius's name cleared. The people here know the real story and yes Three children were murdered and someone got away with it. You won't get the real story from the articles and books published. SC has a lot of secrets. Things that happened then are in a way still happening now. I'm 30 years old and have lived in Manning (Clarendon County) my entire life and can tell stories of the racial divide that still linger. I have witnessed the KKK march the streets of our town and that was just in 1997 (might have been 1996) well i was in High School. don't be so quick to believe what's in writing. The true Story of American Racism will not be found in the history books but in the hearts of those who lived it. Even in 2012 there are still those who refuse to admit to the unjust policies, practices and treatment of individuals because of race, economic class, and sex. It's not hard for me to believe a young black boy in the rural SOUTH was coerced into confessing to a murder and had no family at his trial and nobody really trying to defend him because it STILL happens today.