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

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The demise of a Sixties monster

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A CCTV camera is seen in front of a large poster opposite in central London  

Home Office is creating more powers to turn everyone into suspects – but leave us no safer

Shami Chakrabarti
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?