George Stinney: After 70 years, justice in sight for boy America sent to electric chair

George Stinney was 14 when executed for a crime his family says he didn’t commit. A retrial may clear his name

George Stinney was only 14 when a court in South Carolina sentenced him to death in 1944. The youngest person to be executed in the US since the 19th century, the black teenager was a little over five feet tall, weighed 95lbs, and had to put a bible on the seat beneath him so that he could fit into the electric chair. His feet dangled some way above the floor.

Now, 70 years on, Stinney’s family still insists he was innocent of the double murder of which he was convicted, and has asked a local judge to order a retrial and clear his name.

They and their supporters claim new evidence about the crime – and about the inadequate legal process that followed – suggest Stinney was the victim of a historic miscarriage of justice.

On 23 March 1944, two white girls – Betty Binnicker, 11, and Mary Thames, 7 – went out on their bicycles to look for wild flowers near Alcolu, a small mill town in segregated South Carolina.

Stinney’s sister, Amie Ruffner, says she and George were grazing their family’s cow close to the railway tracks that divided the town when the girls passed by.

Ms Ruffner, who is now 77, recently told WLTX, a local news station: “They said, ‘Could you tell us where we could find some maypops?’ We said, ‘No,’ and they went on about their business.”

They were the last people to see Binnicker and Thames alive. The girls’ bodies were found the following day in a nearby drainage ditch; both had suffered crushing blows to their skulls.

According to the 1944 medical examiner’s report, the injuries were probably caused by a “blunt instrument with a small round head about the size of a hammer”.

The report noted that both girls’ hymens were intact but that there was minor swelling and a “slight bruise” on  Binnicker’s genitalia.

Police soon took George and his brother Johnnie in for questioning, though they later released Johnnie. “They took my brothers away and I never saw my mother laugh again,” said Ms Ruffner, who believes the authorities simply wanted a scapegoat for the murders.

Stinney was interrogated without his parents or a lawyer present. Police claimed he quickly confessed to the crime and that he had been motivated by a desire to have sex with Binnicker.

The 14-year-old’s trial lasted less than three hours, during which time his defence lawyer presented not a shred of evidence, nor any witness testimony to help his case. The all-white jury arrived at its guilty verdict after only 10 minutes. He was swiftly sentenced to death.

Aime Ruffner receives support after testifying at the hearing to reopen the case for her brother George Stinney Jr Aime Ruffner receives support after testifying at the hearing to reopen the case for her brother George Stinney Jr
Afterwards, a mob of white men arrived at the local jail to lynch Stinney, but he had already been transferred to the Columbia penitentiary some 50 miles away, where, a mere 84 days after the murders, he was escorted to the electric chair.

Witnesses said that as the switch was flipped, sending a 2,400-volt surge of electricity through Stinney’s body, his convulsions caused the oversized mask covering his face to fall away, revealing his terrified features.

Stinney’s father had been among those who searched for Binnicker and Thames after they went missing, yet he was fired from his job at the local lumber mill and the family driven from the town.

Now, his three surviving children say their brother’s confession was coerced, and that George was with the family at the time of the murders.

“South Carolina still recognises George Stinney as a murderer. We felt that something needed to be done about that,” Matt Burgess, a lawyer acting for the Stinney family, told CNN.

“We think we have the opportunity here to make a difference and correct a wrong that’s been there for 70 years.”

Among the evidence in Stinney’s favour is a statement made by his cell mate, Wilford Hunter, who said the teenager had repeatedly denied committing the murders.

The defence team has also uncovered numerous violations of due process during the original case. For instance, one member of the search party sent out for the girls, whose family owned the land on which the bodies were found, was later appointed foreman of the jury at the coroner’s inquest.

A hearing to determine the future of the case began on Tuesday at the Sumter County Judicial Centre in South Carolina.

Judge Carmen Mullen told those assembled that the hearing would not produce a new verdict as to Stinney’s guilt or innocence, but simply decide whether or not he received a fair trial.

Arguing against the prospect of a retrial, Third Circuit Solicitor Chip Finney said: “The fact of the matter is, it happened, and it occurred because of a legal system of justice that was in place and that we – for all we know, based on the record – [know] worked properly.”

Many remain convinced of Stinney’s guilt, including James Gamble, whose father was the Clarendon County sheriff at the time of the killings. Mr Gamble rode in his father’s car with Stinney after the teenager was convicted, and in 2003 claimed: “He was real talkative about it. He said, ‘I’m real sorry. I didn’t want to kill them girls.’”

Two of Binnicker’s nieces also expressed their concerns about airing the old case again. Frankie Bailey Dyches said she believed Stinney had “got what he deserved” and that “justice was served, according to the laws in 1944”.

Carolyn Geddings said she felt bad for the Stinney family, but thought a retrial would only open old wounds.

“They can’t help what happened and I don’t know that they were treated fair back then,” she said.

“Once the trial is over, it will be over whatever way it goes and it’s not going to bring him back and it’s not going to bring my aunt and the other little girl back and it’s a sad situation. That’s what happened in 1944 and 70 years is a long time to keep rehashing it, it needs to be over.”

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on