An African-American boy, George Stinney, who was executed when he was 14 years old for the killing of two young white girls, was exonerated this week, seventy years after he became the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 1900s. A South Carolina judge ruled he was denied due process.
When George was executed, he was so small that the straps of South Carolina’s electric chair didn’t fit him properly, and state officials had him sit on a book for his electrocution.
Less than three months before his execution, George and his sister were playing in their yard when two young white girls briefly approached them and asked where they could find flowers. Hours later, the girls failed to return home and a search party was organized to find them. George Stinney, a member of the search party, casually mentioned to a bystander that he had seen the girls earlier. The following morning, their dead bodies were found in a shallow ditch.
George was immediately arrested for the murders and subjected to hours of interrogation without his parents or an attorney. The sheriff later claimed he confessed to the murders, though no written or signed statement was presented. George’s father was fired from his job and his family forced to flee out of fear for their lives. A mob attempted to lynch George but he had already been moved to an out-of-town jail.
George faced a sham trial virtually alone. No African-Americans were allowed inside the courthouse and his court-appointed attorney, a tax lawyer with political aspirations, failed to call a single witness. The prosecution presented the sheriff’s testimony regarding George’s alleged confession as the only evidence of his guilt. An all-white jury deliberated for ten minutes before convicting George Stinney of rape and murder, and the judge promptly sentenced the fourteen-year-old to death. He was executed on June 16, 1944, and remains the youngest person executed in the United States in the twentieth century.
George’s family members and various civil rights advocates have sought to clear his name of the murders in recent years. In January 2014, a judge held a two-day hearing, which included testimony from three of George’s surviving siblings, members of the search party, and several experts. The state argued at the hearing that George’s conviction should stand.
In vacating the conviction, the judge found that George Stinney was fundamentally deprived of due process throughout the proceedings against him, that the alleged confession “simply cannot be said to be known and voluntary,” that the court-appointed attorney “did little to nothing” to defend George, and that his representation was “the essence of being ineffective.” The judge concluded: “I can think of no greater injustice.”