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martes, septiembre 27, 2011

The Shame Of State Killing.

This is George J. Stinney, Jr. This is his mug shot. He was born on October 21, 1929, and he was executed by the State of South Carolina on June 16, 1944. He was then fourteen years old. He was just 5'1" tall and weighed 95 pounds. He was the youngest person executed in the United States.

The Murders. Two white girls, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 8, disappeared while out riding their bicycles. They were looking for flowers to put on their bicycles. As they passed where Stinney lived, they asked George Stinney and his sister, Katherine, if they knew where to find some "maypops", a kind of flower. When the girls did not return, hundreds of people joined search parties. The bodies of the girls were found the next morning in a ditch filled with muddy water. Both had suffered severe head wounds.
Stinney was arrested a few hours later and was interrogated alone by several officers in a locked room. Within an hour a deputy announced that Stinney had confessed to the crime.

The Confession. Stinney wanted to "have sex with" 11-year old Betty June Binnicker and could not do so unless her friend, Mary Emma Thames was removed from the scene. So he decided to kill Mary Emma. When he went to kill Mary Emma, both girls "fought back." So he decided to kill Betty June, too. He used a 15 inch railroad spike that was later found in the same ditch as the bodies. According to deputies, Stinney had somehow been successful in killing both at once. Somehow one of them did not escape. He inflicted major blunt trauma to their heads, shattering their skulls into at least 4-5 pieces. The confession was never recorded in any police files. There were even rumors that he was offered ice cream by the police if he cooperated by providing a confession.

The Town exploded. The next day, Stinney was charged with first degree murder. The town's grief grew rapidly into seething anger. People threatened to storm the local jail to lynch Stinney, but he had already been moved to Charleston. Stinney's father was fired from his job at the local lumber mill and the Stinney family fled during the night in fear for their lives.

The Trial. Because his family had fled, the fourteen year old faced the death penalty jury trial by himself. Jury selection took just two hours. It began at 10 am and ended just after noon, when a lunch recess was taken. The evidence began at 2:30 pm. Stinney's court appointed lawyer was 30-year-old Charles Plowden, a tax commissioner. Plowden was no Atticus Finch. He did not cross-examine a single witness. His defense apparently was that Stinney was too young to be held criminally responsible for the crimes. No such luck. South Carolina law was that anyone over the age of 14 as an adult. Summations ended at 4:30 pm, and after jury instructions, the jury retired just before 5 pm. The jury deliberated for all of 10 minutes. Stinney was found guilty with no recommendation for mercy and was sentenced to death in the electric chair.

There was no appeal. When asked about appeals, Plowden replied that there would be no appeal, as the Stinney family had no money to pay for a continuation.

The Execution. George Stinney was electrocuted at the South Carolina State Penitentiary on June 16, 1944. At 7:30 p.m., Stinney walked to the execution chamber with a Bible under his arm. Standing 5'1" and weighing just over 90 pounds, he was small for his age, which presented difficulties in securing him to the frame holding the electrodes. The state's adult-sized face-mask didn’t fit him. His convulsing exposed his tear streaked face to witnesses as the mask slipped free. Stinney was declared dead within four minutes of the initial electrocution.

From the time of the murders until Stinney's execution a total of eighty one days elapsed.

I doubt that this shameful case received much public attention. In June, 1944, the newspapers were filled with the events of D-Day and news from Europe. And it's hard to re-construct what happened in the trial now. There are apparently no transcripts of the testimony. What remains is just the horror and revulsion of this repellant execution.

The Supreme Court finally ruled in 2005 (Roper v. Simmons) that juveniles who had committed crimes under the age of 18 could not be executed for them. Even before the Court's ruling 19 states did not allow the execution of juveniles. But 22 juveniles were executed in the modern era for crimes committed before they were 18, including Stinney. That is the part of the shameful, disgraceful legacy of state killing.

What will it take before the horror of executing juveniles, of executing the developmentally disabled, of executing those who did not commit murder, generally applies to all state killing? How long will it take?

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