George Stinney Jr: The Tragic Case of a Child Executed in the USA

by JoHarrington

Activists are trying to clear the name of the youngest person to be killed in America's electric chair. They have the blessing of his family.

"My neighbor said we weren't going to see him again, because..." Rev Charles Stinney stops talking, momentarily too overwhelmed to continue his story.

He was recalling the dark days of March 1944, in Alcolu, South Carolina, when his fourteen year old brother was just one of several young African Americans rounded up on suspicion of murder. His neighbor was right.

Within weeks, George Stinney Jr had made history. He remains the youngest person ever to face the electric chair in the USA.

Photo: George Stinney Jr
Photo: George Stinney Jr

How George Stinney Jr Became the Youngest Person to face the Electric Chair

Activists point to many failings in the arrest and trial, which saw a 14 year old boy suffering the death penalty in the USA.

George Stinney Jr may have been innocent.

There were no witnesses, no evidence and nothing to link him to the scene of the crime.

His family claim that George was in the house doing his homework at the time. When the cry went up that two young girls were missing, he joined the search party to find them.

Moreover, George and his sister informed the sheriff that they had seen the missing girls earlier in the day. Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames had been picking flowers, when the siblings passed by.

The Stinneys carried on home, but it had been a link. That single sighting was enough to see George arrested and herded into the local police station, once the bodies of both girls had been found.

The teenager was reportedly given ice-cream (or a candy bar) to confess to the murders. He'd been locked in a room with several police officers for over an hour. He was neither offered nor given access to a lawyer.

His parents were barred from the vicinity, not allowed to see him until after his trial. As soon as George had been arrested, his father had been fired from his job at the local lumber yard. Their home was owned by his ex-employer and it was instantly forfeit. Most of the town was owned by the same man and the Stinneys were told outright to leave on the next train. They weren't given time to pack.

Outside the cells, a mob of local people had gathered, convinced that a child murderer was housed inside. They demanded that the teenager be brought out and handed over. The sheriff refused, transferring him instead to Charleston for George's own protection. His family had no idea where he'd gone.

George Stinney Jr was held in isolation, until he went to court a month later. There his court appointed lawyer Charles Plowden didn't attempt to prove his client's innocence. Instead, the whole case rested on whether a fourteen year old could be held accountable for his actions.

The jury took just 10 minutes to state that he could and should receive the death penalty. Plowden stated that there would be no appeal.

Until now, young George had remained relatively calm. The court records describe him as co-operative. Observers noted that he was very polite.

But all indications show that he had no idea about the depth of trouble he was in. The boy certainly didn't know that he would be facing the death penalty.

Once the verdict was read out, George started to panic. Back at the prison, he was allowed to write to his mother. He sent a letter. He swore hadn't committed the crimes. He begged her to help him.

Neither George, nor the authorities, mentioned that he'd already been on trial. What could she do, except pray? Mrs Stinney was not an educated lady. She was illiterate. Her daughter had to read that heart-breaking letter to her.

Photo: George Stinney Jr's fingerprints
Photo: George Stinney Jr's fingerprints

A few weeks later, Amie Stinney was allowed access to her son.

She had taken her husband and six other children to live with her mother in Pinewood, in another part of the state. A neighbor there gave her a lift to South Carolina Penitentiary in Columbia, where she was allowed to see George for the first time since he had been arrested.

The terrified fourteen year old told her that he didn't do it, but there was nothing that she could do to help him. Once his mother was ushered out, she was not to see him again. She had received no official word that he had been charged, let alone tried and found guilty. She heard nothing more until the notice came to claim his body.

She broke down upon seeing him, "They didn't have to burn him up like that!" 

But for the final outcome, it had been a botched execution. Small for his age, at only 5ft 1" and 90lbs, there had been some difficulty in fitting George into the electric chair. After the first 2,400 volts, his mask had slipped off, revealing his wide-eyed and tearful face. The next two surges had killed him.

An Interview with Rev Charles Stinney

The younger brother of George Stinney Jr spoke to W.E A.L.L B.E about the effect of the execution on his family.

Non-Fiction Books about George Stinney Jr

To date, no-one has written a focused account of this case. But George is mentioned in these wider studies.

Amie Stinney: "My son didn't do this!"

The execution of George Stinney Jr had a devastating effect upon the rest of his family.

Image: MaypopIt has been nearly 70 years since George Stinney Jr was executed, but his remaining siblings still sound raw with emotion when they talk about it. In amongst the facts, statistics and human rights issues, it's often difficult to get a sense of the boy at the center of it.

"(George) was like my idol, you know." Katherine Stinney Robinson told Sound Portraits.

She had been with him when they encountered the girls. She said that Betty June and Mary Emma had cycled by the Stinney house, looking for may pop flowers. Katherine and George told them that they didn't know where the flowers grew and the girls went away.

Mrs Robinson went on describing her brother.  "He was very smart in school, very artistic. He could draw all kinds of things."

This was a view shared by her elder brother Reverend Charles Stinney. In the interview with W.E A.L.L B.E, he explained that George had then returned indoors to complete his homework. He'd been smart in school and that was a great help to their mother, as he could assist her with reading items useful for their household. Rev Stinney continued, "He did a lot of drawing. He was pretty good at that also."

Rev Stinney 'wasn't even 11' on the day that George was arrested for murdering the two girls. He admits to not understanding precisely what was going on, especially since he had been out of the house at the time. Katherine had been home, but she was still none the wiser. She talked about men in suits coming and taking her brother. They gave no reason.

There was barely time for any of them to react, before they were bundled with their parents and other siblings onto a train to Pinewood, South Carolina. They only had the clothes in which they stood, when the family arrived at their maternal grandmother's home. A neighbor had assured them that it was the safest thing to do.  She doubted that any harm would come to George. It just didn't seem feasible.

Image: Baptist SymbolThat was no comfort to Amie Stinney though. Mrs Robinson recalled that their mother wouldn't stop crying. Her 'little eyes (were) all swollen', as she prayed endlessly for God to change the minds of her son's captors. She kept repeating over and over again that her son didn't do it.

Their brother's body was sent to them in Pinewood, where he was buried in a family plot close to his grandmother's home.The Stinneys were devout Baptists and took some comfort in the fact that George was now out of harm in Heaven. After his execution, the family leaned upon their faith to cope with his loss.

It took months for his father, George Stinney Sr, to find work, after which he was able to afford the train fare back to their former home. He was able to recover some of their possessions and bring them back to the family.

Rev Stinney simply called it 'a hurting thing'. Both noted that, once George was dead, neither of their parents would discuss it. The children were raised not knowing exactly what had happened, beyond the fact that their brother was dead, until they were adults themselves. But the silence didn't mean that he was forgotten. Their parents never got over it.

Mr and Mrs Stinney are both gone now too. Only one of their four sons and two of their three daughters remain to try and clear George's name. They've both stated outright that no-one in their family ever doubted George's innocence. Any effort to exonerate him has their blessing.

Carolina Skeletons - Based on the George Stinney Jr Story

Check out this book and movie, which was inspired by the true life story of George Stinney Jr.
This harrowing made-for-TV film is based on the true story of George Stinney Jr., a child put to death in the USA. It stars Louis Gossett Jr, Bruce Dern and Melissa Leo.

Articles About George Stinney Jr

There are several websites discussing the case. These are just a few of them.

Death Penalty: 14 Year Old Executed in USA May Have been Innocent
Activists are seeking to clear the name of seventh grader George Stinney Jr, one of the youngest people ever to receive the death penalty in America.

South Carolina Penitentiary Record of Electrocution (PDF)
The legal document detailing the execution of George Stinney Jr, as recorded by the place where he was held and taken to the electric chair.

Was one of the youngest ever executed innocent?
South Carolina attorney Steve McKenzie tells The Grio why he is campaigning to reopen the case of George Stinney Jr in order to clear his name.

George Stinney Jr: Possible Retrial for Child Executed in the USA
It's 70 years too late, but a motion has been filed with the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office. If it passes review by a judge, then a date will be set.

George Stinney Jr Movie Planned by Pleroma Studios Entertainment
At just 14 years old, George Stinney Jr was the youngest American ever to be executed in the electric chair. Was he innocent? A film biopic tells his story.

Wikipedia Entry on George Stinney Jr

George Junius Stinney Jr. was, at age 14, the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century. The question of Stinney's guilt and the judicial process leading to his execution remain controversial.

Should the Case of George Stinney Jr be Reopened?

A South Carolina attorney and the Stinney family want a modern judge to open the files and re-evaluate the evidence.
  Display results
Thank you for voting!

George Stinney Jr in Deutsch?

My friend and fellow writer Christian Dorr has written about this case in German.

George Stinney Jr .: Todesstrafe an Kind in den USA vollstreckt
Mit 14 Jahren wurde George Stinney Jr am elektrischen Stuhl hingerichtet. Am 26. Juli 1944 trat er seinen letzten Weg in der Todeszelle des Carolina State Penitentiary in Columbia, South Carolina an.

Additional Evidence in George Stinney Jr Case

A judge is evaluating the case in January 2014. If she accepts that there is reasonable doubt, then George Stinney Jr will get a posthumous trial to assess his innocence.

More articles About the Death Penalty

I consider judicial execution to be a 'cruel and unusual punishment', which is contrary to international human rights laws.
Examining the murky history and gruesome use of electrocution as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
The death penalty for children has been stamped out in the majority of countries. Where it remains, kids as young as 13 are being killed.
Documentary film-makers are set to launch an anti-death penalty campaign. They will travel across the USA interviewing those exonerated of all crimes.
Updated: 03/15/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 12/27/2014

Ruth - I received several texts telling me about this and I cheered. I was nowhere near a computer at the time to share it too, but I'm glad justice was finally done. I just wish it hadn't been so late.

JoHarrington on 12/27/2014

Chunkyd - I really can't imagine what you experienced back there, though what I can imagine disturbs me no end. I agree fully that you have to understand history to grasp the present, and predict the future. What I'm seeing on the streets of Ferguson, New York and other places is seriously perturbing. Though I'm hoping this is merely things coming into the open, and therefore a precursor to ending such tactics for once and for all.

JoHarrington on 12/27/2014

JustMe - I've been an Amnesty International activist for decades, I'm very well aware of what happens in various countries. Are you asking me to report back awareness raising everywhere? Here you go:

RuthCox on 12/19/2014

Although bittersweet, it was good to learn that on December 17, 2014 South Carolina Judge Mullen overturned the 1944 conviction of George Stinney Jr.

Chunkyd on 12/18/2014

In order for one to understand history, one must know history. Stories like these are common place in many part of the USA> I happened to be born in South Carolina and know of the atrocities of being an African American in the 50's and 60's. There was no interest in justice or fairness. It is a sad state to have to posthumously exonerate a man for a crime that he did not commit but in many peoples eye, the jury found hum guilty so that means he must have been guilty. Ignorance should not be bliss. Disenfranchised in the 20' 30'. 40', 50's and into the 60's. Instead of making progress we are repeating the same mistakes we have mad before. Why, because of the color of ones skin, and not the content of their hearts!

JustMe on 12/17/2014

Beyond tragic and sad for sure BUT if you people think this only happens in America and to black kids and only to black men, you're beyond naive.

Do any of you have ANY idea what kind of "justice system" exists in other counties?

Seriously, find yourself behind bars in Mexico, Thailand, Turkey, China or Africa and get back to me.

JoHarrington on 09/25/2014

There is this. It's more for the look of the thing than anything else.

RuthCox on 09/23/2014

It is a darned shame that the powers that be don't agree with the Universe. And it's even more shameful that you are correct that it must be a judicial act rather than a political one. Although, many times the two are in the same pockets, sad but true.

JoHarrington on 09/23/2014

Consider me jumping up and down in full agreement with your opening statements, and the second paragraph too.

I hadn't considered that about the interviewer here. What you said about Rev Stinney's attitude curing the world's ills mirrors something that Eva Mozes Kor said yesterday on Reddit. Here and here Funny that the same suggestion, in two separate places, should come up within a day of each other. Perhaps it's the universe agreeing.

I'd love to see President Obama simply wipe George Stinney Jr's record clean. But there will always be those who say it was a political move. It needs to occur in a court of law, so it can be a judge saying it with all due regard for the law. Sad, but still the world in which we live.

RuthCox on 09/22/2014

This tragic loss of the lives of three children is a horror story for them and their families. At the forefront in my mind is that a child should not be executed, period. Further, a child should not be executed as an adult for what they were found guilty of as a child.

But of course, there is also the prejudice that even the Rev. Stinney mentioned in his interview, prevalent back then, and that nobody could do anything about it. It was accepted as a fact of life. So sad. Yet, still, so inspiring that the Rev. Skinney has no hatred, never has, and says his family doesn't either, then or now.

This brings up something else, on the flip side, that concerns me. I do not feel it is right when others, outsiders for lack of a better word, having their own agenda, maybe even their own hatefulness, attempt to instill that in those who have come to terms with it in their own forgiving and accepting way. And in listening very closely to the interview with the Rev. (twice) I do believe the interviewer was trying to stir something up that is not in that man.

Don't get me wrong... I believe there is not a thing right about what occurred, about the deaths of any of these children. I also believe those wrongs cannot be cured with hate. Honestly, the attitude held by the Rev. Stinney is more likely to cure what ails the world where racism and hate are concerned.

Reopen the case? No. For crying out loud, let the man in the White House wipe George Stinney's record clean without further ado. He takes power in his hands when it's for his agenda, so why not for this boy's name... (My apologies for the book I've written on your space.)

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