March 23, 1944: The Bodies of Betty Binnicker and Mary Thames Found


WHAT HAPPENED?


Born October 21, 1929, George Stinney Jr., a 14 year old black teen, was convicted of killing 2 young white children, Betty Binnicker (11) and Mary Thames (7), in his hometown of Alcolu, South Carolina. He was only 14 years old, but when found guilty, he was executed by electric chair.


He is the youngest American to be sentenced to death and executed. The court refused his appeals, and all attempts for clemency were denied. It wasn't until 2014, 70 years after his execution, that the court ruled that he was not given a fair trial.

THE INCIDENT AND THE TRIAL


George Stinney Jr. lived, aged 14, lived with his father, mother, and 4 siblings in Alcolu, SC. His father worked at the town's sawmill, and the family lived in company housing. At the time, the white and black neighborhoods were separated by railroad tracks. Churches and schools were segregated, and white folks and black folks did not interact much.


On March 23, 1944, the bodies of Betty Binnicker and Mary Thames were found in a ditch. They had not returned home the night before. They had been beaten with a weapon and had been seen last riding their bikes looking for flowers. Their bodies were found "on the African American side" of the city.


They had passed the Stinneys' home and asked George and his sister, Aime, if they knew where to find the certain type of flower they were looking for. Aime told police that she was with her brother at the time the police had determined for the murders.


An article published on March 24, 1944, said that George had confessed to the murders.


George and his older brother, Johnny, were arrested on suspicion of the murders. Johnny was released, but George was held, not allowed to see his parents.


The deputy stated that he had arrested George Stinney because he confessed, and gave directions to a piece of iron that was buried in a ditch near the bicycles. However, no signed confession is known to exist, and George claimed that he was starved and bribed with food to get him to confess.


After his arrest, George's father was fired from his job, and the family lost their home, as they were living in company housing. Because of the sensation around the case, they were terrified for their safety. They were told, allegedly by both the community and the police, that their other children would be lynched if they didn't get out of town immediately.


George was left entirely alone. He was confined or going through his trial for 81 days, none of which brought a visitor or a friendly face. He was questioned alone, with no parents or attorney present. He was jailed 50 miles away from his home.


In an extremely shocking detail of the case, Stinney's entire trial, from jury selection to sentencing, lasted only one day. His court-appointed lawyer was Charles Plowden, campaigning for election to local office. He did not challenge the police officers who testified that he confessed. This forced (or potentially non-existent) confession was the only piece of evidence against him.


The prosecution provided 2 different versions of what he confessed. In the first version, Stinney claimed he was attacked by the girls, and he killed them in self defense. In the second version, he followed the girls and just decided to murder them. Though neither of these make sense, nor are they similar in the slightest, his lawyer did not challenge anything.


The jury was all white folks, as black people were not allowed to vote and thus, not able to be selected as jurors. The entire courtroom was filled with over 1,000 white people, as black people were not allowed.


The trial consisted of only a few testimonies: The 3 police officers, the Reverend who discovered the bodies, and the doctors who performed the examination of them. Even with few testimonies, there were conflicts. There was a conversation of the possibility of rape or sexual assault, even though the medical examiner said there was no support for it.


After 2 and a half hours of the prosecution saying whatever they wanted, contradicting themselves with no challenge, the trial was over. Stinney's lawyer did not call any witnesses, didn't cross-examine any of the witnesses the prosecution called, or challenge anything they said. He sat back and listened, providing no defense for the innocent 14-year-old kid he was supposed to be helping.


After less than 10 minutes, the jury came back with a guilty verdict. The Judge, Judge Phillip H. Stoll, sentenced him to death by electrocution. Within a few days, he went from a child playing outside with his sister to the prime suspect in a murder investigation. Within a few hours, he went from believing this was his chance to set the truth straight to being sentenced to die.


His defense attorney did not file any appeal. Without a lawyer to back them up, Stinney's family, local churches, and the NAACP appealed to the governor for clemency, given that he was merely a child. But their demands were met with demands from the other side, requesting that Governor Olin D. Johnston allow the execution to go on as planned. He did, writing back:


"It may be interesting for you to know that 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. All of this he admitted himself."


It is unclear where his facts came from. According to the medical examiner, neither of the girls experienced any sexual trauma. There were also 3 testimonies from 3 different officers who told 2 very different stories about his confession, but none of them included rape and returning to the scene of the crime.

THE EXECUTION OF A 14 YEAR OLD CHILD


Between the time that Stinney was arrested from his home and the time he was killed, he was only allowed to see his parents one time.


On June 16, 1944 at 7:30 PM, George Stinney was executed by electrocution at the Central Correctional Institution in Columbia, South Carolina. He stood 5 feet 1 inch tall and weighed barely 90 pounds. He was a child.


He was placed in the electric chair, and they put a bible under him to sit on because he was too short. He was restrained by his arms, legs and waist to the chair. His father was allowed to approach and say goodbye to his child.


When asked if he had any last words, he shook his head, crying and breathing heavily as a strap from the chair was placed over his mouth. He continued sobbing as they placed a mask over his face. He was not declared dead for 8 minutes after the shock. The mask slipped off, revealing his burnt scalp and tears streaming down his face. His teeth were smoking and one of his eyes had come out.


He was buried in an unmarked grave the following day, his family hoping that leaving the grave unmarked would allow him to rest in peace.


With nothing but the conflicting evidence of a few racist police officers eager to make an arrest, the city's police and court systems made the decision that they were okay charging, convicting, and killing a child who, deep down, they likely knew had nothing to do with it.

THE CASE, REOPENED


George Frierson, a local historian from Alcolu, began researching the case in 2004 after reading in the paper about it. His research gained the attention of 2 South Carolina lawyers. Additional lawyers and other willing helpers spent hours reviewing the documents, finding witnesses and identifying evidence to exonerate a child who had now been dead for 60 years.


Lawyers from the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) at Northeastern University School of Law aided the case, and Frierson and other pro bono lawyers worked with the Pardon and Parole Board of South Carolina.


Stinney's family was represented by Steve McKenzie and Matt Burgess, the lawyers that Frierson's research had attracted back in 2004, and they filed a motion for a new trial in 2013. They wanted a judge to admit that there was no evidence, no confession, no case transcript and no reason to convict this child. They claimed they had a non-family, non-relative witness who could exonerate him.


Frierson claimed that the family of a now-dead resident of the town had confessed on his deathbed, and was a member of a prominent white family who had recommended that Stinney be prosecuted.


The CRRJ said there was compelling evidence that he was innocent, and reiterated that their case laid entirely on the back of an unrecorded, unsigned confession with no lawyer or parent present, and that he was represented by a lawyer who did nothing to help him.


A new court hearing took place in January of 2014. Stinney's siblings testified that he was with them during the time of the murders. An affidavit was introduced from the Reverend who had found the girls, saying there was not much blood around the ditch and that they were likely killed elsewhere. A man who was in prison with Stinney testified that he told him he was forced to confess and maintained his innocence. The team fighting against his exoneration was lead by Ernest A. Finney III, the son of a man who was South Carolina's first African American Supreme Court Justice.


On December 17, 2014, circuit court judge Carmen Mullen vacated Stinney's conviction on the grounds that he had not received a fair trial. She said his confession was likely coerced and therefore inadmissible. She also considered the execution of a child cruel and unusual punishment, and claimed that his lawyer failed him.


Though she admitted that he still may have committed the crime, she said that there is no justification for the charging, trial, conviction and execution of a child in 80 days, and that nobody helped him while his life was "lay[ing] in the balance".


There are many victims in this case. The one that this article focuses on primarily is George Stinney, who lost his life when he was just a child. But 2 other children lost their lives, too. Whoever killed Betty Binnicker and Mary Thames was never held responsible for their crimes. The families of both girls were disappointed by the 2014 ruling. They admitted that the electrocution of a 14-year-old was controversial, but they never doubted that he did it.


Betty Binnicker's niece claimed that she, along with her family, had extensively researched the case. She also alleges that an arresting officer had called her in the 1990s and said, "don't you ever believe that boy didn't kill your aunt," supporting her and her family's stance that just reading newspaper articles about the case didn't give the full story. Their families claim the deathbed confession is unsubstantiated.


Though the murders happened 76 years ago, they made it back into the news just 6 years ago because of the re-trial. And with the revived story came revived interest in what actually happened to those girls. Theories have emerged, but still, nobody knows exactly what happened between the time the girls were seen riding their bikes to pick flowers and the time their bodies were found in a ditch.


But what is key to remember now, because it wasn't then, is that this isn't just the case of 2 victims, and 11 year old girl named Betty Binnicker and a 7 year old girl named Mary Thames. It is also the story of another victim, 14-year-old George Stinney who was held on a crime he probably did not commit, with no one to help him.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Stinney

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