George Stinney, The Boy Who was Wrongfully Convicted

George Stinney Jr. was an African American teenager who, at the age of 14, was sentenced and executed for the deaths of two young white girls in his town in March 1944, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 7.

In Alcolu, a memorial to George Stinney stands alongside a major four-lane highway, with the words “Wrongfully convicted. Illegally executed by South Carolina conviction vacated by court order dated December 16, 2014.”

Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile, published in 1996, was partly based on Stinney’s incident.

Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames the victims
Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames the victims

The Incident

On March 24, 1944, shortly after school, two small white girls born and raised in a segregated mill town headed out on an early spring hunt for maypops, the tart fruit of a lovely wildflower.

Betty June Binnicker, 11, and her friend Mary Emma Thames, 7, followed the railroad tracks. They walked passed the bustling timber factory where almost everyone in Alcolu, including their fathers, worked. Then, they noticed two black children ahead of them.

George Stinney Jr., a seventh grader, had gone feeding his family’s cow with his younger sister, Amie.

Betty June and Mary Emma approached them, inquiring where they could find maypops. George and Amie had no idea. The females continued walking.

A fatal mystery that has haunted Alcolu for 74 years began when the two girls embarked on their journey.

When neither of the girls returned home that evening, volunteers from the town, including Stinney and his father, offered to assist in their search. 

The bodies of the girls were recovered in a ditch the next morning. Stinney had described chatting to the girls the day before, according to one of the volunteers, triggering his arrest for the murders.

George Stinney Jr.’s fingerprints Credits South Carolina Department of Archives and History
George Stinney Jr.’s fingerprints – Credits South Carolina Department of Archives and History

George was detained instantly for the murders and put to hours of interrogation without the presence of his parents or an attorney. The sheriff later stated he admitted to the murders, despite the lack of a written or signed statement. George’s father was sacked, and his family was forced to evacuate for fear for their lives. A mob tried to lynch George, but he had already been taken to a jail outside of town.

Two white males who had assisted in the search for the girls also testified, and Stinney’s cellmate remembered talks in which Stinney claimed he was innocent and had been forced to confess. The murder and execution took less than three months; the trial and judgment took less than a day.

Who is the Real Killer?

A word circulated around town that the girls had stopped at the home of a prominent white family on the day of their murder. The girls wanted to know if they could bring along the wife of a lumber mill owner.

She stated that she could not attend, but her son arrived in his logging truck. While unpacked, he volunteered to accompany the girls to their maypops.

However, this was never proven. And cops didn’t appear to be looking for a white killer.

George Burke Sr. is the lumber company owner who served on the coroner’s inquest and grand jury for George Stinney. The bodies of the girls were discovered on his property.

Is the real killer the lumber mill owner’s son? Unfortunately, we’d never find out.

The Trial of George Stinney

Stinney’s trial began about a month after he was apprehended before the Clarendon County Court of General Sessions. Stinney’s family did not attend, even though he had not seen them since his imprisonment. His father had been laid off from the logging company, forcing the family to relocate. As a result, they got little to no information on Stinney due to fears of lynching and violence.

Stinney’s attorney, Charles Plowden, was appointed and reportedly did little to defend Stinney. There were no witnesses to contradict the prosecution’s side throughout the two-hour trial, which police officers and medical examiners heard. 

Plowden provided no evidence to support his client’s defense. The prosecution’s only evidence was Stinney’s alleged verbal confession, which was not supported by any recorded or written evidence.

Governer Olin D. Johnston who denied clemency to George Stinney
Governer Olin D. Johnston who denied clemency to George Stinney

An all-white, all-male jury decided the young boy’s destiny in less than 10 minutes. He was convicted guilty of murder with no suggestion for compassion.

Stinney’s attorney did not seek an appeal against the death penalty, and the execution date was determined.

The council did not inform George that they might appeal their conviction. If the attorney had filed a one-sentence notice of appeal and subsequently appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, the execution would have been automatically halted for at least a year. But he didn’t do anything and never saw his customer again.

The George Stinney Jr. case sparked several protests from churches and labor organizations, which petitioned then-governor Olin Johnston to grant amnesty to Stinney due to his age. Concurrently, other organizations and individuals across South Carolina sent letters supporting Stinney. However, none of these petitions successfully saved the boy’s life.

Part of George Stinney's prison records
Part of George Stinney’s prison records

The Execution of the Boy

George Junius Stinney Jr. was led to the death chamber by four guards at 7:30 a.m. on June 16, 1944. The 14-year-old Black lad walked with his Bible clutched under his arm, wearing socks but no shoes.

The 14-year-old Black lad walked with his Bible clutched under his arm, wearing socks but no shoes.

The guards had problems attaching his slight to the electric chair (he was 5′ 1′′ and weighed a little over 90 pounds). The jolt from the electrocution shook the adult-sized mask off his head.

His tear-stained face was revealed when the mask slipped off. After two additional charges, he was ruled dead, making him the youngest person executed by the US government in the twentieth century.

Execution of George Stinney
Execution of George Stinney

The New Vacated Judgment in 2014 

In recent years, George’s family members and numerous civil rights groups have worked to clear his name from the murders. A judge held a two-day hearing in January 2014, during which three of George’s surviving siblings, several experts, and members of the search party testified. During the hearing, the state argued that George’s conviction should stand.

The judge found that George Stinney was fundamentally denied a fair trial throughout the proceedings against him, “I can think of no greater injustice,” the court said.

Judge Mullen cited several flaws in the prosecution of the case, including that, despite evidence that Stinney confessed, police didn’t submit any written record of a confession.

She also decided that the boy’s defense attorney brought “few or no witnesses” and did “little or no cross-examination.”

George Stinney walking towards the execution chamber (first from right)
George Stinney walking towards the execution chamber (first from right)

George Stinney Memorial Fund

A plan introduced in the house before the 2018 legislative session would create the George Stinney Fund, which would offer $10 million to families of people exonerated after being executed, regardless of the amount of time that has passed.

The bill is named after a 14-year-old Black teenager convicted of the savage murder of two White girls in Clarendon County and electrocuted in June 1944.

George Stinney memorial
George Stinney memorial


He is frequently cited as the youngest person executed in the United States during the twentieth century. However, the state’s legal age of criminal culpability was only 14 years at the time of the offense.

Due to the widespread opinion that Stinney was innocent and unfairly executed, George Stinney’s case has been regularly cited in debates about using the capital penalty in the United States, particularly in arguments against the death sentence.

Nobody in positions of power seemed to care. George was poor and black. To his executioners, he is a horrible child killer. In the press, a shameless criminal. Until new evidence revealed that he wasn’t. 

End of the day, three dead children, one undying mystery to which we will never find the proper answer.


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