By Sophie Trist, DFLA Messaging Director
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. 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 chair meant for adults 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 like George are more likely to be cast as subhuman predators by the media and state attorneys and sentenced to death, 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 at least providing reparations recognizes the suffering of these families, which is more than many states do. What happened to George Stinney is a call for all Americans to reflect on not only the racism and cruelty that led to this child’s judicial murder, but the incalculable, inherent value of every human life.