At the age of 14 years, George Junius Stinney Jr. was the youngest person to be legally executed in the United States in the 20th Century.
Alcolu, South Carolina was a Jim Crow southern town that was split in two by a railroad track. White workers lived on one side while African American families lived on the other side of the tracks. George’s family, like most of the African American families, lived in cabins owned by the local timber mill.
In the spring of 1944, two white girls – Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 8 – were brutally killed while picking flowers. George and his younger sister were the last known witnesses to have seen the girls alive. Katherine Stinney Robinson, George’s younger sister, later recalled the interaction they had with the girls. “The two little girls passed our house and they said they were going looking for maypops and asked us if we knew anything about maypops and we said no, you know,” remembered Robinson. “And they just went on down the street, riding their bikes, two little girls.”
After the girls were reported missing, the mill owner organized a search party. About 200 people, from both sides of the tracks, searched for the two. The next day, their bodies were found in a watery ditch. Struck repeatedly in the heads, their smashed bikes were thrown on top of them. That night, George and his older brother were arrested. His brother was released. It was alleged that police officers gave George ice cream in return for his confession. Alcolu police stated that he confessed to murdering the girls with a railroad spike immediately upon arrest.
His sister said George was with her all day and could not have killed the girls. However, George’s parents and siblings could not help him. His father was fired from his job. The family was thrown out of their house. They left the town under threats of violence. “My parents were simply helpless to do anything about it,” George’s brother Charles Stinney stated years later. “They had no money. The law was against them, and they were black in the American South in 1944.”
George faced trial without his family. His court-appointed attorney was a tax commissioner hoping to run for office. He offered no evidence and no witnesses on George’s behalf. The trial lasted less than three hours with about 1,500 packed into the small courtroom. It took the all-white jury only ten minutes to return with a guilty verdict solely on the basis of George’s alleged police confession. The judge signed his death sentence.
While George’s family was, and still is, convinced of his innocence, the girls’ families believed he was guilty. Lorraine Bailey, Betty June Binnicker’s older sister, was interviewed in 2004 and remarked: “Everybody knew that he done—even before they had the trial they knew he done it. But, I don’t think they had too much of a trial.” Of his death sentence she said, “I think if he was able to kill two people, he didn’t have any business to be living. If he got away with that, the next time he probably would have killed three.”
On June 16, 1944, wearing a striped uniform, George was led into the execution room. He was 5’1″ and weighed 95 pounds. The executioner had to adjust the straps because of his small frame. George sat on a Bibile in order to be high enough for the electrocution to take place. As the first surge of electricity hit him, the adult-size face mask slipped off, “revealing his wide-open, tearful eyes and saliva coming from his mouth . . . After two more jolts of electricity, the boy was dead.” He was killed without seeing his family again and was four months shy of his 15th birthday.
At the time, George’s execution was legal in South Carolina, where 14-years was the age of criminal responsibility. It would not be until 2005, that the U.S. forbid the execution of children under 18. There were few opportunity for justice in the Jim Crow South. In the last few years, more attention has been brought to George’s case and advocates have pushed for a retrial in an attempt to clear his name.
Clarence Waldron, “Justice Delayed,” Jet 120, no. 20 (November 14, 2011): 17.
Hannah Rappleye, Lisa Riordan Seville and Mark Potter, “Advocates push for retrial to clear name of 14-year-old ‘killer’ executed in 1944,” NBC News, November 16, 2013.