by Sophie Trist
On June 16, 1944, fourteen-year-old George Stinney Jr. became the youngest person to be legally executed in the United States. George Stinney was poor and Black, and he had the misfortune of encountering Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames just hours before they were murdered. After a trial that lasted barely two hours, it took an all-white jury ten minutes to convict George, and the presiding judge immediately sentenced him to death. Both white and Black religious leaders protested George’s death sentence, appealing to the governor’s sense of Christian justice and pointing out that another white teen found guilty of murdering a young girl received a prison sentence rather than the electric chair. The governor refused mercy, saying that the brutality of the crime outweighed any considerations of George’s age. Like so many Black boys who have been criminalized and dehumanized in America, George was not allowed to be a child. Despite his youth and diminutive size, he was seen as a vicious sexual super-predator.
From the time of his arrest to his execution, the fourteen-year-old was not allowed to see his family. Weighing in at just ninety-five pounds when he walked into the execution chamber with a Bible in hand, George Stinney was so small that the state’s electrician had trouble strapping him into the adult-sized chair and fitting electrodes to his child’s body. When asked if he had any last words, George simply replied, “No, sir.” The state killed him by shooting 2,400 volts of electricity into his body.
On December 17, 2014, Judge Carmen Tevis Mullen overturned George’s conviction, citing numerous violations of his constitutional rights. She called his brutal execution “a great and fundamental injustice.” Seventy-eight years after his wrongful execution, South Carolina is honoring George Stinney’s memory by providing reparations to the tune of $10,000,000 to the families of those exonerated after execution, regardless of when the executions took place. The bill has garnered bipartisan support and is sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans. Reflecting on the soon-to-be-created George Stinney Fund, Democratic representative Cezar McKnight said, “We can’t do justice, because justice would be us resurrecting Mr. Stinney and allowing him to have a good life, but what we can do is atone for what we’ve done, and that’s what we need to do.”
George Stinney’s execution is a case study in everything that’s wrong with our broken, brutal system of capital punishment. Even today, poor, Black men are more likely to receive the death penalty, especially if their victims are white. Three-quarters of those executed in South Carolina have been people of color. The George Stinney Fund is an important step forward in the fight for racial justice and equity. No amount of money can resurrect someone or mitigate the trauma of seeing a loved one murdered by the state for a crime they didn’t commit, but monetary compensation at least acknowledges their suffering, which is more than many states do. However, as laudable as this new bill is, it doesn’t go far enough to honor that small boy who was strapped into an electric chair nearly a century ago.
As of 2021, South Carolina will force people to choose between the electric chair and the firing squad if lethal drugs are not available. The same barbaric device that was used to kill George Stinney is being brought back. If South Carolina really wants to honor the memory of its youngest martyr, it should not only compensate the families of the wrongfully executed but make sure that no one suffers George’s gruesome fate.
George Stinney should still be alive. As the judge who overturned his conviction wrote, “George Stinney Jr. would be 84 today. He might have been a husband, a father, a grandfather and a great grandfather. His execution was an execution of generations.” The truth is that every execution is an execution of generations. It’s not just innocent people like George who are worthy of life, but every single one of us. We are all more than our flaws and our brokenness, more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. Let’s honor George Stinney by fighting for the dignity of Black lives in every aspect of our criminal justice system and striving to abolish the system of judicial murder that took his young life.