June 16, 2007
On this date, in 1944, the State of South Carolina executed George Stinney, Jr, a 14-year-old African American. Stinney is the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century.
Stinney was convicted of murdering two white girls, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 8, in Clarendon County. He was arrested the day following the murders and charged with first-degree murder.
The trial took place one month afterwards, starting at 12:30 PM and ending at 5:30 PM. After only 10 minutes of deliberation, the jury, all white and male, returned a guilty verdict.
Charles Plowden, the 31-year-old court-appointed defense attorney, did not file an appeal, which would have automatically stayed the sentence for at least one year. Inexperienced and politically ambitious, Plowden reportedly said, “There was nothing to appeal.” In fact, Plowden did not see his client again.
Consequently, Stinny was executed six weeks after his conviction. He was so small at 5’ 1” and weighing only 95 pounds that the guards had difficulty strapping him in the electric chair. During the execution, the adult-sized mask was blown off his face by the force of the electrical charge, revealing a portrait frozen in terror.
Stinney’s family was told to leave town prior to the trial to avoid further retribution. An atmosphere of lynch mob hysteria hung over the courthouse. Without family visits, the 14 year old had to endure the trial and death alone.
Questionable evidence was presented at the trial. Stinney’s “confession” was suspect but his attorney failed to raise questions about coercion by two white police officers who arrested him. Moreover, the girls had been killed by a ground-joist from a railroad track. It was never determined if Stinney was even physically capable of lifting the heavy beam, if he could have swung it.
I was born in Clarendon County six years after Stinney’s execution. But that event, as did Emmet Till’s murder in 1955, cast a long shadow. Stern parental lectures to black male children about the hazards of life under American Apartheid prominently featured Stinney and Till. Step out of line and if the state doesn’t kill you, the Klan mob will.
The first “field trip” from my elementary school was to the state penitentiary in Columbia. We were escorted to view the electric chair, painted in a bright orange as I recall. Afterwards, we were treated to a tour of the state mental institution where we observed patients strapped to chairs and beds, many sitting in their own urine and feces. Some were mumbling incoherently, oblivious to their surroundings. Others were screaming unintelligibly. When we were taken back downstairs to the first floor, I remember black men standing in the room smiling at us, waving and assuring us that they were “not crazy.”
Fast-forward to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes it easier for prosecutors to exclude people who express reservations about the death penalty from capital juries.
Studies have shown that “death-qualified jurors” are also more prone to convict than those who express reservations about capital punishment. No less significant is the fact that support for the death penalty drops from more than 60% to about half when life in prison without possibility of parole is an option. But the recent court decision will allow prosecutors to exclude such jurors.
We have come a long way since George Stinney’s execution. Juveniles are no longer subject to capital punishment, as are mentally retarded people. The courts have also overturned convictions due to evidence of racial bias in choosing jurors, flawed jury instructions, and defense lawyer incompetence.
Yet, the thirst for state vengeance persists, even at the expense of fairness and simple justice. It is not enough that a juror expresses reservations but still assures courts that they can be impartial, fair, and follow the law.
"Peremptory Challenges” are commonly used by prosecutors to automatically eliminate black potential jurors, without explanation or justification, due to perceived death penalty reservations or because black jurors are perceived as “defense-oriented.”
With close range familiarity with injustice in the criminal justice system, it should come as no surprise that many black jurors are defense-oriented, or ambivalent or morally opposed to capital punishment.
The court’s decision could potentially exclude about half of the population from serving on capital juries, according to experts in the field.
University of South Florida psychology professor, Brooke Butler, recently told New York Times reporter, Adam Liptak, that death-qualified jurors are “demographically unique.”
Liptak reported that Professor Butler has conducted over 2,000 interviews with potential jurors over the past seven years. “They tend to be white,” she said. “They tend to be male. They tend to be moderately well educated---high school or maybe a little college. They tend to be politically conservative---Republican. They tend to be Christian—Catholic or Protestant. They tend to be middle socio-economic status—maybe $30,000 or $40,000” in yearly income.
Professor Butler also concluded, in a study to be published by the peer-reviewed journal, Behavioral Sciences and the Law, those death-qualified jurors “ are more likely to be prejudiced---to be racist, sexist and homophobic.”
Tinkering with the fundamentals of fairness and justice to tilt the balance in favor of the prosecution in life and death cases is particularly egregious. This tinkering is not intended to insure impartiality or fairness, but rather to rig the system to promote an outcome pursued by the state.
That race is the central factor in this tinkering, masquerading as an effort to insure that the state “gets a fair trial”, signals the use of a Trojan Horse to legitimize racism in the administration of justice.
It is not 1944, but we are likely to see more George Stinney, Jr. juries in the 21st century .