George Stinney: Even if the executed 14-year-old is pardoned, it would be wrong to suppose capital punishment has become more 'humane' since 1944

Endemic racism, of course, remains. And neither have our killing methods 'improved'

Share

Seventy years ago the State of South Carolina acquired a dubious distinction: George Junius Stinney was executed at the age of just 14, becoming the youngest person put to death in the United States in the twentieth century. Much is made of the fact that he was so young and so small: he had to use his Bible as a booster seat and his feet were dangled as he could not reach the floor. The leather mask was too big, and slipped off when the first 2400 volts hit him, revealing his agony as he died.

Even advocates of the death penalty look back on Stinney’s death with some remorse – things were, we are told, so much less sophisticated back then. Seventy years on, his family is seeking a posthumous pardon, based on evidence of innocence. It would seem that he was a victim of local racism, when the bodies of two young white girls were found in a drainage ditch and his family run out of town so they could not help stave off an injustice. Of course, a pardon will do Stinney little good now, but are we so much more civilised in our ‘modern era’?

Of course, the racism still remains. I had to walk into the gas chamber with Edward Earl Johnson in Mississippi – a nightmare recorded in the BBC documentary Fourteen Days in May. Edward was a black teenager accused of killing a white police officer in our modern world. Edward was a victim of some very similar racism: I only represented him for the last, desperate three weeks of his life, and I learned after he had died in the swirling Zyclon B that a woman had been with him at the time of the crime. I asked her why she had not gone to the police. She said she had, but they told her to mind her own business. Edward’s black trial lawyers had been too intimidated to go to the country where the murder took place to investigate his claim of innocence. George Stinney, the youngest person ever executed in South Carolina, in 1944 George Stinney, the youngest person ever executed in South Carolina, in 1944

Perhaps one reason that Stinney could not prove his innocence in 1944 was that he had no time: South Carolina took just 81 days from his arrest to his execution. Compare this to modern times: Thomas Knight was executed on January 7, 2014. He was originally sent to death row in 1974, when he was only 18 himself. In other words, he spent 44 years waiting to be executed – more than two thirds of his own life, and three times the length of Stinney’s. Can it be said that we are more civilised when we make people wait for decades, their cell lights dimming once a week as the Electric Chair is tested, before they are finally strapped down for death?

Knight had plenty of time to prove his case. But would our ‘modern courts’ have let Stinney off just because he did not commit the crime? The simple, sorry answer is, no. The United States Supreme Court has held (in a 1993 ruling that still binds us today) that innocence is not actually a reason to stop an execution. Just last week I was in Miami on the case of Kris Maharaj, a British man originally sentenced to die 27 years ago. There is powerful evidence of his innocence – three members of the Colombian cartels say Pablo Escobar was behind the double homicide in the Dupont Plaza hotel in 1986 – and yet Maharaj is still in prison. Indeed, on Tuesday, the prosecutors vehemently opposed letting us compare the 19 unmatched fingerprints from the crime scene – any one of which might demonstrate his innocence beyond sensible doubt.

Most states have now rejected the barbarism of the Electric Chair – and I can assure you it was disgusting, as I watched two men (Nicky Ingram and Larry Lonchar) being tortured to death in it. But is the lethal injection needle so much better? Stinney died after four minutes of electric agony. On January 17, 2014, Dennis McGuire died on the Ohio gurney. It took 25 minutes, as Ohio had run out of the drug they normally use for killing people, so they had to experiment.. Unsurprisingly, these macabre scientists – more Frankenstein than Einstein – got it catastrophically wrong. 

A few years before Stinney’s death, Mohandas Gandhi was famously asked what he thought of Western Civilisation. “I think it would be a good idea,” he replied. Until we rid the world of the death penalty, we should not delude ourselves that we have travelled very far along the path to decency.

Clive Stafford Smith  is the director of the legal action charity Reprieve

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Patrick Cockburn: Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
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