New evidence, old wounds in SC execution case

Seventy years after George Stinney was youngest person to die by electric chair in South Carolina, he gets a new trial

Undated mug shots from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History show George Stinney, 14, who was the youngest person ever executed in that state, in 1944. Fresh evidence has prompted a new trial.
South Carolina Dept of Archives and History/AP

ALCOLU, S.C. — Seven decades after the state of South Carolina executed a 14-year-old black teenager for the murder of two white girls, the prospect of new evidence that could exonerate him highlights long-held racial divisions and fear.

In Alcolu the ghosts of its once thriving past as a lumber mill village are scattered all around. Little transition is left between its remaining Victorian mansions lining Main Street and the decrepit mill houses nearly swallowed whole by weeds and time. At its center, a hulking building that once housed the company store, a barber shop and doctor’s office. This shuttered hub of the town is now a patchwork of discarded junk, boarded up windows and tattered tin signs.

One of Alcolu’s relics is its onetime company store. The former mill town is haunted by more than just old buildings.
Kimberly Johnson

The town, however, is haunted by much more than real estate relics. In late March 1944, Mary Emma Thames, 7, and Betty June Binnicker, 11, went missing while out riding their bikes, searching for wildflowers. The bodies of the two were found the next day partly submerged in a drainage ditch, both suffering fatal, crushing blows to their skulls. George Stinney, reportedly the last person to see the girls as he tended to his family’s cow when they stopped to ask for directions, quickly became the prime suspect and was taken in for questioning by police. They held Stinney for five days, then charged him after they said he confessed to the girls’ murders. At his trial, no physical evidence was presented, and jurors reportedly deliberated only 10 minutes before sentencing him to the electric chair, making him the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the last century.

New evidence, however, has prompted attorneys in the state to file a motion to clear Stinney’s name as they head to court Tuesday seeking a posthumous exoneration.

The bodies of two white girls were found about 300 yards from the back door of Green Hill Missionary Baptist Church, known in town as “the black church.”
Kimberly Johnson

“If you questioned anybody, they were very tight about the story,” with insinuations that there was more to it, the Rev. James Hudley told Al Jazeera America. For 23 years, Hudley served as pastor of Alcolu’s Green Hill Missionary Baptist Church, known locally as “the black church.” The neat white sanctuary sits on a boundary line of sorts, across the street from the long-closed-down lumber mill reclaimed by overgrowth and on the edge of an open farm field of freshly tilled soil. The girls’ bodies were found about 300 yards from its back door. Hudley first heard about the murders about two decades ago and says churchgoers were reluctant to speak about it.

The fear for their personal safety that kept them from speaking in Stinney’s defense 70 years ago left lingering feelings of guilt in the community, Hudley said. “I never try to push them because I felt that there was fear that if you talked too much, the wrong people would get the message” and provoke local intimidation, he said. “It put a lot of fright into the black population of Alcolu. I feel that even today that fright is still there.” 

Just off Interstate 95, Alcolu sits five miles from Manning, the county seat of Clarendon County, where racial struggles proved a flash point on a historical level. In 1947, during the heart of school segregation, black families in the county pushed for a school bus for their children but were denied. The case later became part of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case ruling in 1954, which ended segregation in public schools across the U.S.

New day in court

That spring, police details of Stinney’s alleged confession were swiftly routed to the governor’s office in Columbia. As clemency pleas came in to then-Gov. Olin Johnston, he responded with the graphic details relayed to him: “Stinney killed the smaller girl to rape the larger one. Then he killed the larger girl and raped her dead body. Twenty minutes later he returned and attempted to rape her again but her body was too cold.” That account, however, is in direct conflict with a recently found autopsy report that did not find evidence of a sexual attack.

Johnston’s letter “had no basis in fact. It was a complete lie,” said Manning attorney Ray Chandler, whose law firm is defending Stinney on Tuesday. New evidence — such as new witnesses, a review of the original autopsy report previously buried in state archives and a re-examining of events — potentially puts the case on new footing, he said. But first, the defense must establish standing with the court, proving there is enough at stake to take the case forward to trial.

A copy of a photo that ran June 8, 1944, in The Columba (S.C.) Record, showing Stinney, center right, and Bruce Hamilton, 21, center left, enter the death house in the state prison. Both were executed June 16, 1944.
Jimmy Price/The Columbia Record/AP

“You open the door of a posthumous 70-year-old case of murder with these procedural issues in it, you might as well go buy a lottery ticket,” Chandler said. “We’re taking a leap, and we know it.”

Memory of Jim Crow racism in the state is still fresh for Dr. Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As a boy, he watched his grandmother sit in the back of city buses and his father — a World War II veteran — sit in segregated waiting rooms at the Veterans Administration hospital. Those experiences were compounded when he first heard about Stinney’s execution as a teenager.

“I do what I do today because of those horrible experiences I had in this state as a child,” he said. But disparity still exists for African-Americans encountering the judicial system in the state, he argued. “What can we do today to make this unfair system of so-called justice in this state serve all people in a fair and just manner?” 

About two-thirds of South Carolina’s prisoners are black, as are 27 of its 46 inmates currently sitting on death row.

Race has always played a role in the death penalty, sometimes blatantly, Richard Dieter, executive director of Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit watchdog based in Washington, D.C., said in an email. Punishments have varied along racial lines, with blacks receiving stiffer penalties. In rape capital cases, for example, almost all those executed were black while almost all the victims were white, he said.

"The biggest influence of race is that defendants are much more likely to receive the death penalty if the victim in their crime was white than if the victim was black,” Dieter said. Murders in the black community, however, are less likely to be pursued as capital cases, he added.

“It's important that the government officially recognizes that mistakes have been made,” he said. “This sends a clear message to the public that information in the future might change the convictions of the present.”

The lines still drawn

News of a possible retrial is far from universally welcome in the town, still struggling with racial bias.

Jimmy Hodge, now 82, was 12 years old when his father joined the search party that eventually found the girls’ bodies. Despite news of fresh evidence, he still believes Stinney is guilty. “After 70 years, I don’t know where it all came from. Why is it just showing up now?”

Hodge denies the presence of racial tension in the area, calling Alcolu “a village where everybody got along. There was no race problem. They’re a different people and still are,” he said of the black community in Alcolu.

“No other race is like American-born Caucasian, in their heritage and in the way that they do things. And I think that’s why the Lord created more than one race,” he said.

“The two races separated themselves. They had their own way to do things,” Hodge said, adding, “but it wasn’t that they were against the other.”

Sonya Williamson, 50, said that while she grew up hearing about the Stinney case, she firmly believes in his innocence. In 1944 her grandfather attended Stinney’s trial, describing for the family how he was taken to court in a cage and could hardly walk under the weight of the shackles. Her grandfather came away with doubt, saying, “That colored boy didn’t do that,” a statement that still troubles her, she said. “Why did he not speak out?”

“I think it’s kind of a waste of time, myself,” said resident Russell Harrelson, a hobbyist historian for the area. “What good is it to stir into something that old? I think it’s going to stir up more controversy than it’s going to do good.”

The fear held tight all these years is such in the black community that some might agree with him and hope nothing comes of the case, according to Green Hill’s Hudley. “A lot of people are hoping that won’t nothing be done about it,” he said. “They will be relieved that the pressure they’re living under now will just soon vanish.”

The letter from then-Gov. Olin Johnston and his response to the pleas for clemency for George Stinney. An attorney arguing the case for a new trial said the letter "was a complete lie.''
Courtesy of South Carolina Dept of Archives and History

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