George Stinney

June 16, 2024, marks 80 years since South Carolina executed 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. Historical reports indicate that on March 24, 1944, Mr. Stinney and his younger sister, Aime, were playing outside when two white girls approached them, asking where they could find a particular flower. Neither Mr. Stinney nor his sister knew where the young girls could find these flowers and they quickly moved along. That evening, when both young girls failed to return home, a search party was sent to find them. Mr. Stinney and his family joined the search party, and he mentioned to another searcher that he had seen the girls earlier in the day. The next morning, after a pastor’s son discovered the bodies of both girls in a shallow ditch, Mr. Stinney was arrested and charged with their murders. According to police, Mr. Stinney confessed to bludgeoning both girls to death despite the absence of any physical evidence connecting him to the crime. Mr. Stinney was charged with capital murder and rape, tried, convicted, and executed in South Carolina’s electric chair in just under three months.

Just days after Mr. Stinney’s arrest, his father was fired from his job and the family was forced to flee town because of threats of violence. On March 26, a white mob attempted to lynch Mr. Stinney, but failed to do so only because he had already been moved to a jail in a different town. A month later, Mr. Stinney went to trial, but his family and other African Americans were not allowed to enter the segregated courthouse. Mr. Stinney’s attorney had no experience representing capital defendants and failed to call any witnesses in his defense. The prosecutor only presented testimony from the local sheriff, who described Mr. Stinney’s alleged confession. After just 10 minutes of deliberation, an all-white jury sentenced Mr. Stinney to death for rape and murder. Governor Olin Johnston refused to grant clemency to Mr. Stinney, and he was executed by the electric chair on June 16, 1944. Newspapers reported that guards had trouble getting Mr. Stinney strapped into the electric chair built for adults, as he stood at just 5 foot 1 and weighed 95 pounds. When the executioner flipped the switch and the initial 2,400 volts surged through Mr. Stinney’s body, the oversized mask placed on his face slipped, exposing the tears streaming from his frightened eyes. Mr. Stinney remains the youngest person executed in the United States during the 20th century.

Mr. Stinney’s siblings always maintained that he was not involved in the murders but it was not until 2004 when legal efforts to exonerate Mr. Stinney began. In October 2013, attorneys for the Stinney family filed a petition asking the court to overturn the guilty verdict. Just three months later, Sumter County Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen held a two-day evidentiary hearing to determine whether Mr. Stinney received a fair trial. George’s sister, Aime Ruffner, repeated the same story she had told since 1944, noting that she remembered the day well because “no white people came around” to the Black side of town. “Somebody followed those girls and killed them,” she told the court.

In December 2014, Judge Mullen formally vacated Mr. Stinney’s capital conviction, determining that he was deprived of due process throughout his trial. In her order, Judge Mullen wrote that “Stinney’s appointed counsel made no independent investigation, did not request a change of venue or additional time to prepare the case, he asked little or no questions on cross-examination of the State’s witnesses and presented few or no witnesses on behalf of his client based on the length of the trial. He failed to file an appeal or a stay of execution. That is the essence of being ineffective…” Ultimately, Judge Mullen could “think of no greater injustice than the violation of one’s Constitutional rights which has been proven to [her] in this case.”

Katherine Robinson, one of Mr. Stinney’s sisters, said that “when we got the news, we were sitting with friends…I threw my hands up and said, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’ Someone had to be listening. It’s what we wanted for all these years.” Ms. Robinson said that despite the many years between her brother’s execution and exoneration, she has great memories of the time they spent together. “I’m happy for this day because it’s been such a long time coming, but then I cringe when I go back into that childhood and think of George back in the day,” Ms. Robinson said. “He had no one to help him. I get chills every time I think about it.”