Judge Exonerates 14-Year-Old Black Boy 70 Years Later. Execution Harder To Reverse
A South Carolina judge has thrown out the 1944 murder conviction of George Stinney Jr., who had been convicted of murdering two young white girls whose heads were smashed with something like a railroad spike. Stinney, 14 years old, was tried in two hours and found guilty after ten minutes of deliberation -- by an all-white jury, of course -- and sentenced to death. It was a model of speedy justice, Jim Crow style, summarized here by The Washington Post's Lindsey Bever:
He was questioned in a small room, alone -- without his parents, without an attorney. (Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court case guaranteeing the right to counsel, wouldn’t be decided until 1963.) Police claimed the boy confessed to killing Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 8, admitting he wanted to have sex with Betty. They rushed him to trial.
After a two-hour trial and a 10-minute jury deliberation, Stinney was convicted of murder on April 24 and sentenced to die by electrocution, according to a book by Mark R. Jones. At the time, 14 was the age of criminal responsibility. His lawyer, a local political figure, chose not to appeal.
Stinney’s initial trial, the evidence – or lack of it – and the speed with which he was convicted seemed to illustrate how a young black boy was railroaded by an all-white justice system. During the one-day trial, the defense called few or no witnesses. There was no written record of a confession. Today, most people who could testify are dead and most evidence is long gone.
Stinney was electrocuted on June 16, 1944, and became the youngest American put to death in modern times. The vacating of the guilty verdict Tuesday, by Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen, is largely being seen as the correction of a historic injustice, although some, including a surviving niece of victim Betty June Binnicker, insist that despite the flawed procedures, Stinney was definitely guilty, and a few little problems like rushing to judgment and coercing a confession out of a 14-year-old shouldn't change the verdict.
The 1944 investigation was just a little bit rushed -- Stinney and his sister, then seven years old, were the last people to see the girls, and his sister, Amie Ruffner, who is 77 now, says that she was with him the rest of the day. Police never questioned her. A child forensic psychiatrist at the retrial testified that Stinney's confession, made with no one but police in the room, was unreliable, and "best characterized as a coerced, compliant, false confession." The physical evidence didn't get much consideration, since the trial depended on the confession, but it's worth noting that when he was executed, Stinney weighed less than 100 pounds and was so small that he had to sit on a pile of books for the headpiece to fit him -- but he was also supposedly able to kill two girls with a heavy iron bar and then carry their bodies from a field to the ditch where they were found.
Stinney's family say they were glad that he was exonerated, not pardoned:
"There’s a difference: A pardon is forgiving someone for something they did,” Norma Robinson, George Stinney’s niece, told the Manning Times. “That wasn’t an option for my mother, my aunt or my uncle. We weren’t asking forgiveness.”
Instead, they sought what’s called a “writ of coram nobis.” It means, in essence, mistakes were made.
So there's a 70-year-old injustice set partly right, if you overlook a 14-year-old being cheated of his life and, probably, some unknown killer going free (who knows -- perhaps Stinney managed a miraculous feat of strength and did it, but the trial was so flawed that it proved nothing). Thank goodness our justice system today has improved to the point where wrongly-convicted people never get executed anymore, and it's rare for anyway to get away with murder.
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.