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.
It certainly wasn’t with Stinney when his court-appointed attorney didn’t even care to call witnesses or provide evidence in his defense. And the justice system certainly wasn’t with his parents when a lynch mob ran them out of town, leaving their son in that South Carolina courtroom to face his fate all by himself.
I believe the best way we can commemorate the birth of this poor 14-year-old boy’s short life is to take a moment to really ask ourselves why we need this cruel form of punishment to begin with. Some will argue that if you kill someone, you should be put to death.
Well, the vast majority of convicts who are found guilty of killing someone are not sentenced to death. So why the selective application?
Is it making our streets safer?
Has it put innocent lives on death row for crimes they did not commit?
Of the 33 states in the Union that administer the death penalty, California voters will have the choice on Nov. 6 to vote for or against Proposition 34.
Not only would it end the death penalty in California, it would save the state more than $130 million per year in costs from death penalty cases. The measure would also require convicted killers to work and pay restitution in to a victim’s compensation fund.
Greg Akili, the Southern California field director for Safe California, told NewsOne that as much as $100 million of the money saved from executions can potentially go to a crime victim’s fund to help support their cases.
“That is a better use of the money because many of the victims that we work with and who have been supporting the initiative are victims of rape and murder but their cases are not being aggressively pursued,” Akili said. “So the money that we save from executing people here in California can be used for that fund.”
Proposition 34 is a smart, cost-effective way of administering justice that can truly help make our street’s safer and ensure that no innocent person is killed for a crime they did not commit.
We do not know what Stinney would have done with his 83 years had he lived that long. But what we do know is that the ugly, inhumane practice that took his life nearly seventy years ago is as flawed and broken now as it was back in 1944.
Currently, more than half of the 3,170 of the people on death row are people of color, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. Forty-three percent of them are African-American.
In Alabama, for example, 80 percent of all death sentences are imposed in cases where the victim is White even though 65 percent of the state’s murder victims are Black.
The racial bias that forced a 14-year-old Stinney in to an electric chair some 68 years ago clearly exists today.
So when we sit in our church pews this Sunday morning, lead our congregations in prayer, and deliver the good word, let us not forget that little George Stinney was born.
Let us take a moment of silence to reflect on the fact that the United States – along with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and China — tops the list of countries with the highest execution rates in the world. We are not serving justice nor are we serving any God by using the death penalty to take another human being’s life. We’re merely serving our primal desire to get even.
But as little George Stinney should remind us, there was nothing even about the way it was applied to him or others since his execution.
It’s time to end the death penalty in America. Now and forever.