Fourteen year old George Stinney Jnr’s 1944 murder trial in the US’s Jim Crow South lasted less than three hours. He was convicted of murdering two white girls, though there was no evidence against him, and sent to the electric chair 83 days after his arrest.
“They villainised this boy—they made him look like a monster,” writer Ray L Brown told Socialist Worker.
He was the youngest person to be executed in the US in the 20th century.
But it has taken 70 years and 274 days of fighting by George’s brother, sisters and civil rights campaigners to clear his name.
Last week South Carolina judge Carmen Mullins threw out his conviction on the grounds that he had been wronged by the justice system.
Ray got involved in the fight for justice after researching the case for a film he’s helped produce about George’s story.
He told Socialist Worker that the ruling comes as an “overwhelming relief” but that the struggle goes on.
“Things have not got better in this country. We face the same issues today. There is no stipulation on justice, it doesn’t matter how long it takes—it’s something we should always strive for.”
George’s story is less well known than that of Emmett Till, a black 14 year old who was lynched in 1955 after he was accused of flirting with a white shopkeeper.
But it is the same tale of racism and corruption in the United States.
George Junius Stinney Jnr lived with his brother, two sisters and parents in the mill town of Alcolu, South Carolina, in the racist Jim Crow south.
On 23 March 1944 local girls Mary Thames aged 7 and Betty Binnicker aged 11 went to pick wildflowers. They never came home.
After a frantic search their bodies were found the next day lying in a watery ditch. They had been beaten to death with a 15 inch railroad spike which was found tossed nearby.
Immediately the racist justice system went into motion to take revenge for the murders of the two girls. Deputy Sheriff HS Newman acting on “information I received” arrested George.
The girls had passed the Stinney home earlier in the day and had asked George and his sister Katherine where they could find “maypops”, a type of flower.
This was the only connection George had to the case—there was no evidence. And the railroad spike used to kill the girls weighed over 20 pounds—too heavy for the 14 year old who was just over 5 feet tall and weighed 95 pounds.
Instead the case rested on a “confession”. But as Ray said, “There was no records of a confession. There was nothing at all. The cops came out of the room and said he confessed.”
While researching the case Ray’s team helped uncover documents that had been hidden for decades.
But they came up against their own battles as they were repeatedly blocked when they requested information.
“We were told there is no records, that the documents do not exist. But we never believed that was the case,” he said.
It was only when a white member of the team requested the files that they were handed over.
“They gave her everything,” said Ray. “They were lying to us.”
The team then handed over the files that showed clear violation of civil rights to the Department of Justice.
During his trial George was alone in the court—his family had been driven out of town by a racist mob.
His own defence attorney Charles Plowden did not challenge the lack of evidence or the “confession” and he provided no witnesses. He did not cross examine the prosecution witnesses.
Plowden was scheduled to run for public office—and did not want to upset his chances by being seen to support a black boy charged with killing two white girls.
Instead he said George was too young to be convicted of murder—despite the fact the law stated 14 year olds could be charged as adults.
It took just 10 minutes for an all white, all male jury to convict him of the murders. He was recommended no mercy and sentenced to death.
Trade unions, churches and the civil rights organisation the NAACP campaigned against his sentence. Plowden filed no legal challenges against the death penalty.
Many asked South Carolina governor Olin D Johnston to intervene, but he claimed it was out of his power and instead joined in with the slurs.
He said George had gotten off lightly, claiming he had raped Betty after killing her and would be lynched if he was freed.
On the morning of 16 June George was killed by electric chair at the Central Correctional Institute in Columbia.
His sister Amie Ruffner later said, “They took my brother away and I never saw my mother laugh again”.
It was 83 days after he was first charged, and the number has inspired the title of Ray’s film. Starring actor Danny Glover 83 days is due for release in 2015.
Ray also points to the protests that have taken place around the US and internationally following police killings of black men and the failure of the justice system to act.
“Many people ask why did I get involved in a case that happened 70 years ago. It makes no difference it happened 70 years ago,” he said.
“These issues are affecting us today. So I say don’t stop fighting, don’t give up. Racism is racism is racism.
“You have got to stand up, say something and be recognised.”
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