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South Carolina may bring back electric chair, once used to execute a 14-year-old boy later exonerated

George Stinney Jr.’s mug shot when he was arrested in 1944. The 5-foot-1, 90-pound boy was accused of brutally murdering two White girls. (Wikimedia Commons/State of South Carolina)

Barely 5 feet tall and not yet 100 pounds, George Stinney Jr. sat so small in the electric chair that the straps were too big to contain him.

The 14-year-old had to sit on books for his head to reach the headpiece. And when the switch was flipped, the convulsions knocked down the large mask, exposing his tearful face to the crowd.

That was June 16, 1944. Seventy years after his execution by electric chair, George was exonerated of the crime that ended his brief life.

Now, lawmakers in South Carolina have passed a bill to bring back this gruesome method of execution. A provision in the new bill would also allow death-row inmates to choose execution by firing squad.

South Carolina could force death row inmates to choose between electric chair, firing squad

The state has not executed anyone in a decade because of a shortage of lethal injection drugs; the current law allows death-row inmates to choose between lethal injection and electrocution; since there are no drugs, the inmates choose lethal injection.

The bill is expected to pass routine procedural votes before it heads to Gov. Henry McMaster’s desk. McMaster (R) has expressed support for the measure.

In speaking out against the bill, state Rep. Justin T. Bamberg (D), described in graphic detail what happens to a body during an electrocution and invoked the memory of George.

“So not only did South Carolina give the electric chair to the youngest person ever in America, but the boy was innocent,” Bamberg said.

George’s story is seared in the minds and hearts of civil rights activists.

In March 1944, in the rural segregated town of Alcolu, S.C., police came for George while his parents were out of the house, handcuffed him and took him away.

Two young White girls had been murdered, found dead in a waterlogged ditch after being brutally beaten over the head. George and his little sister, who were Black, were said to be the last ones to see the girls alive.

Many are still haunted by how it went down — police questioning a boy, without his parents or lawyer or anyone else to advocate for him, according to historical archives. (Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court case guaranteeing the right to counsel, would not be decided until 1963.)

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Authorities claimed at the time that the boy had admitted to killing Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames. But during his quick two-hour trial, there was little evidence and no recorded confession. Few, if any, witnesses were called to the stand.

Regardless, it took the all-White jury some 10 minutes to convict him.

George was convicted of murder on April 24, 1944, and sentenced to die by electrocution, according to a book by Mark R. Jones. At the time, 14 was the age of criminal responsibility. His lawyer, who was a local political figure, decided not to appeal.

New facts in the case prompted Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen to vacate George’s conviction in 2014 — 70 years after his execution.

“I can think of no greater injustice than the violation of one’s Constitutional rights which has been proven to me in this case,” Mullen wrote.

The case has haunted the town since it happened, but it garnered new attention when historian George Frierson, a local school board member raised in George’s hometown, started studying it some years ago. Then, George’s former cellmate issued a statement saying the boy denied the charges. “I didn’t, didn’t do it,’ ” Wilford Hunter said George told him. “He said, ‘Why would they kill me for something I didn’t do?’ ”

In 2009, an attorney planned to file statements from George’s family members but waited because he heard a man in Tennessee, who was not related to George, could offer an alibi for him. The man never came forward. That may have delayed the new trial, but it didn’t stop it.

George’s family claimed his confession was coerced, and that he had an alibi that was never heard. That alibi was his sister, Amie Ruffner. She said she was with him at the alleged time of the crime, watching their family’s cow graze near some railroad tracks by their house when the two girls rode over on their bicycles.

“George’s conviction and execution was something my family believed could happen to any of us in the family. Therefore, we made a decision for the safety of the family to leave it be,” Charles Stinney, a brother of George, wrote in his sworn statement, the Associated Press reported.

At a hearing in January 2014, George’s family demanded a new trial. Mullen heard testimony from George’s brothers and sisters, a witness from the search party that discovered the bodies and experts who challenged George’s confession. A child forensic psychiatrist told the court at the time that the young teen’s confession should have never been trusted.

“It is my professional opinion, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the confession given by George Stinney Jr. on or about March 24, 1944, is best characterized as a coerced, compliant, false confession,” Amanda Salas told the court, according to NBC News. “It is not reliable.”

Still, some argued that George’s admission of guilt was clear.

At the time, a law enforcement officer named H.S. Newman wrote in a handwritten statement: “I arrested a boy by the name of George Stinney. He then made a confession and told me where to find a piece of iron about 15 inches long. He said he put it in a ditch about six feet from the bicycle.”

James Gamble, whose father was the sheriff at the time, told the Herald in 2003 he was in the back seat with George when his father drove the boy to prison, CNN reported.

“There wasn’t ever any doubt about him being guilty,” he said. “He was real talkative about it. He said, ‘I’m real sorry. I didn’t want to kill them girls.’ ”

Just 84 days after the girls’ deaths, George was sent to the electric chair. (Color images spread on social media purporting to show George’s execution are actually stills from the 1991 film “Carolina Skeletons,” part of which is loosely based on George’s case.) Today, an appeal of a death sentence is all but automatic, and years — even decades — pass before an execution, which provides at least some time for new evidence to emerge.

Authorities have never pursued any other suspects in the case. Frierson has told the media the Stinney family heard a deathbed confession from someone but will not say who it was. "Everybody in the community knows who it allegedly was,” he told the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange in 2013.

Frierson and George’s family maintained that they never wanted a pardon.

“There’s a difference: A pardon is forgiving someone for something they did,” Norma Robinson, George’s niece, told the Manning Times. “That wasn’t an option for my mother, my aunt or my uncle. We weren’t asking forgiveness.”

Instead, they sought what’s called a “writ of coram nobis.” It means, in essence, mistakes were made.

While George’s execution is particularly tragic because of his young age, executing a person later found innocent is a miscarriage of justice not confined to the history books. Just last week, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported new DNA evidence had been found that could exonerate Ledell Lee, a Black man executed there in 2017. Since the 1970s, 185 people sentenced to death have been exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center; 96 of them were Black.

There are currently 37 people, all men, on South Carolina’s death row. More than half of them are Black.

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