George Junius Stinney Jr., the 14-year-old Black boy who died as the youngest person ever executed in the United States in the 20th century, would have been 83-years-old this Sunday.
Instead, his birthday will serve as a haunting reminder of why the death penalty needs to be abolished.
When two White girls, 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and 8-year-old Mary Emma Thames, went missing in Alcolu, S.C., on March 22, 1944, after riding in to town on their bicycles, Stinney was arrested the following day for allegedly murdering them.
The girls had allegedly passed Stinney’s home, where they asked him where they could find a particular kind of flower. Once the girls did not return home, hundreds of volunteers looked for them until their bodies were found the next morning in a ditch.
Because Stinney joined the search team and shared with another volunteer that he had spoken to the girls before they disappeared, he was arrested for their murders.
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Without his parents, Stinney was interrogated by several White officers for hours. A deputy eventually emerged announcing that Stinney had confessed to the girls’ murders. The young boy allegedly told the deputies that he wanted to have sex with the 11-year-old girl, but had to kill the younger one to do it. When the 8-year-old supposedly refused to leave, he allegedly killed both of them because they refused his sexual advances.
To coerce his confession, deputies reportedly offered the child an ice cream cone.
There is no record of a confession. No physical evidence that he committed the crime exists. His trial — if you want to call it that — lasted less than two hours. No witnesses were called. No defense evidence was presented. And the all-White jury deliberated for all of 10 minutes before sentencing him to death.
On June 16, 1944, his frail, 5-foot-1, 95-pound body was strapped in to an electric chair at a state correctional facility in Columbia, S.C. Dictionaries had to be stacked on the seat of the chair so that he could properly sit in the seat. But even that didn’t help. When the first jolts of electricity hit him, the head mask reportedly slipped off, revealing the agony on his face and the tears streaming down his cheeks. Only after several more jolts of electricity did the boy die.
It was, without question, one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in U.S. history. Yet, decades later, 33 states in the United States still practice this barbaric form of so-called justice. And the way it has been applied to our community has been especially unjust — and discriminatory.
Since 1973, almost 30 years after Stinney’s execution, 141 people in 26 states have been exonerated from death row after new evidence cleared them of wrongdoing, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Seventy of those individuals were Black men and one was a Black woman, which accounts for more than half of the wrongfully convicted. Twelve of them were Latino.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, says that race and other unjust factors determine who is sentenced to death.
“It’s those who are the most vulnerable,” Dieter told NewsOne in a phone interview. “If you have a poor lawyer or if you kill a White person, you’re more likely to get the death penalty. If you kill someone in Texas, it’s different than if you are accused of killing someone in another state and that is terribly unfair.”
What is even more unfair is that, since 1977, the majority of death row defendants have been executed for killing White victims, according to Amnesty International. But more than half of all homicide victims are African American. A Yale University Law School study reports that Black defendants are sentenced to death at three times the rate of White defendants when the victim is White.
Things really have not changed since little George Stinney was executed for killing two White girls based on virtually no evidence and pure racism.
Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition To Abolish The Death Penalty, told NewsOne in an interview that Stinney’s upcoming birthday should remind us all that a flawed method of administering justice for the victim is not just if it clearly targets a particular group of people.
“If we don’t care whether or not race is influencing these cases, how are we going to make the system care if it turns out that our children are not getting the education they need or we’re not getting a fair shake in mortgages?” Rust-Tierney asked. “That is what this is about.”
Her Washington, D.C.-based organization played a pivotal role in helping to abolish the death penalty for juveniles in the United States with its 1997 “Stop Killing Kids Campaign” that lead to South Dakota and Wyoming banning the practice for offenders under the age of 18. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the practice against juveniles in 2005.
Before the High Court’s ruling, however, 71 juveniles were on death row. Two-thirds of them where offenders of color, and more than two-thirds of their victims were white.
“For people of color, the criminal justice system has been designed to be about us and around us but never with us,” Rust-Tierney said.