In the dense woods of Alcolu, South Carolina, in 1944, the discovery of the lifeless bodies of two young white girls, Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 7, sent shockwaves through the entire town. The subsequent events would unravel a story of racial tension, injustice, and a dark chapter in American legal history.
During the 1940s, Alcolu was a town divided along racial lines, with separate places of worship for the white and black communities. Green Hill Missionary Baptist Church served as the church for the black population, while Clarendon Baptist Church was designated for the white community. The shallow ditch where the girls’ bodies were found was only a short walk from Green Hill Missionary Baptist Church, intensifying the racial tension surrounding the case.
Suspicion quickly fell upon a 14-year-old black boy named George Stinney Jr., based on information that he and his sister, Amie Ruffner, were the last ones to see the girls alive near a field in Alcolu. George Junius Stinney Jr., born on October 21, 1929, was the youngest of eight siblings in the Stinney family.
In the absence of concrete evidence and additional witnesses, state police swiftly apprehended Stinney and his brother, while their two younger sisters hid in the backyard. Interrogated without the presence of their parents or legal representation, Stinney was quickly implicated in the crime.
Stinney’s trial unfolded in a racially charged environment. Represented by a tax lawyer who had never handled a criminal case and held in a courtroom that barred black citizens, Stinney faced an unfair trial. Despite a lack of substantial evidence, Stinney was charged with murder. The Washington Post reported on the trial, highlighting the absence of black witnesses and the weak case against Stinney.
On April 24, after a two-hour trial and a brief 10-minute jury deliberation, all-white jurors sentenced Stinney to death by electrocution. At the age of 14, he became the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century.
Stinney’s execution, just 83 days after the girls’ bodies were discovered, raised questions about the fairness of the trial. His small stature caused issues during the electrocution, contributing to the growing perception of injustice in the case.
Years later, Stinney’s siblings, Katherine Robinson and Amie Ruffner, provided sworn testimonies detailing their brother’s innocence. They recounted the events of the day, confirming that Stinney and Amie had been tending to the family’s cattle and had not interacted with the girls.
In the following years, the injustice surrounding Stinney’s trial gained public attention. The lack of due process, inadequate legal representation, and the absence of physical evidence, coupled with doubts about Stinney’s confession, fueled suspicions. Historian George Frierson, a native of Alcolu, began investigating the case in 2004, uncovering new evidence and glaring flaws in the original trial.
Under mounting pressure from Stinney’s supporters, the U.S. legal system reviewed the case. In 2014, the Circuit Court Judge overturned Stinney’s conviction, stating that he had not received a fair trial and that his Sixth Amendment constitutional rights had been violated. Seventy years after his execution, George Stinney Jr. was posthumously exonerated.
The tragic tale of George Stinney Jr. serves as a haunting reminder of one of the darkest periods in American legal history. His story symbolizes the ability of individuals to challenge systemic injustice and underscores the imperative to rectify historical wrongs. As society reflects on the past, the case of George Stinney Jr. stands as a beacon, urging vigilance in upholding justice and ensuring that no one else falls victim to a similar fate.