WASHINGTON, December 20, 2014 – Seventy years after George Stinney Jr. was killed by the state of South Carolina, justice is served. Unfortunately “justice delayed is justice denied” (William E. Gladstone).
Protesters of the Ferguson officer Darren Wilson grand jury decision would be well served to consider this seven decade old tragic case. They need to reflect upon what is true racial injustice and the unjust death of an innocent black teen actually at the hands of Jim Crow.
Stinney, a 14-year-old black teen, was just one the many victims of the Jim Crow racism prevalent in the 1940’s. Stinney was executed for a murder he did not commit. According to the Washington Post, George Stinney Jr. was falsely convicted in a South Carolina courtroom in the beating death of two young white girls in Alcolu, Georgia.
George Stinney’s trial lasted less than a day and a jury of twelve white men found him guilty. They based their conviction on a false “eye witness” account and a confession coerced out of the young boy who was not allowed to see his parents, much less counsel, during questioning. At that time, the right to counsel was not guaranteed by the Supreme Court until 1963 (Gideon v. Wainwright).
Historian George Frierson of Alcolu presented evidence of Stinney’s murder by the state, relying on newspaper articles and other documents provided to a law firm where attorney Matt Burgess pursued the injustice. Burgess sought the seldom argued “writ of coram nobis”, Latin for “error before us,” which asks an appeals court to consider new facts in a case. Coram nobis is limited to cases where a manifest injustice has taken place.
Evidence included information that Stinney’s sister was not allowed to present an alibi for her brother and that though police claimed he confessed, Stinney denied that he murdered the girls. A confession was not entered into evidence during the trial.
Stinney was executed less than three months after the trial. The small child, barely 5 feet tall, not 100 pounds was too small for the electric chair. He had to be set upon phone books to reach the headpiece. During the process, the mask was knocked off his tear soaked face.
During the trial, Amanda Sales, a child forensic psychiatrist, testified that the child’s confession was not valid:
“It is my professional opinion, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the confession given by George Stinney Jr. on or about March 24, 1944, is best characterized as a coerced, compliant, false confession,”
Judge Carmen Mullens reversed the decision, decrying its injustice. Judge Mullens vacated the jury murder decision against the wrongly accused boy, who at the time, was the youngest in the nation to have received the death penalty.
Judge Mullens emphasized in her ruling, “I can think of no greater injustice,” reported the Washington Post. She stressed the lack of physical evidence that linked the 14-year-old to the crimes. Unfortunately, the lack of due process for the youth was irrelevant in the pre-civil rights era of South Carolina.
The decision was never appealed.
The last time Aime Ruffner saw her brother was as he lay in his coffin with his faced burned from the execution. She had hid when the police came to arrest her younger brother.
Earlier in 2014 she said, “I never went back [to Alcolu]. I curse that place. It was the destruction of my family and the killing of my brother.”
There is no way for someone today to imagine the fear that segregated justice ruled by Jim Crow racism could bring to a black family. In far too many cases, innocent black men and boys were taken by lynch mobs to either stand trial for incidents that were fabricated or for simply standing up against an injustice.
In my own family, my grandfather lost a family member in the late 1930’s to lynching. The anguish, personal loss and unrelenting fear was far too real. That fear never left him or my father.
According to Yale University’s “The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States, 1880-1950,” the attacks and killings of Negroes was based to a large degree on resenting any Negro progress.
The 14-year-old Stinney was a target due his color. The fact that by all accounts he was well-behaved, shy, youth of the time, was irrelevant.
The Jim Crow death of George Stinney Jr. seems to be lost in the recorded memories of the black community now claiming that racism killed Michael Brown. Unlike Brown’s death, the death by lynching of blacks was initiated by a mob which “made the killing of Negroes a type of local amusement which broke the monotony of rural life.”
The harsh reality for the family of Stinney and other blacks that lived under Jim Crow, the unwarranted attack and eventual lynching of an innocent black man or woman was a community event. According to the Yale University study, the harsh reality is that the lynchers were hardly ever indicted by a grand jury or sentenced.
The study mentioned that, “The judge, prosecutor, jurors and witnesses were all white and were usually in sympathy with the lynchers,” said the Yale Study.
Therefore, it is understandable that the then eight-year-old Aime would hide out of sight in a chicken coop as white police officers drove up to her home to take her older brother away. And that no one would fight for the child.
After 70 years, one of the final chapters of judicial discrimination and an unfair Jim Crow justice system can be put to rest for a 95 pound young teen.
George Stinney, Jr. was murdered by a racism that today is hard for protesters in Ferguson, New York City or Cleveland to fathom or understand. If there is going to be a call for justice, let it be to not ever lose sight of how much progress has been made in preventing the tragic death by racism of another George Stinney, Jr.
The current justice system, while still not completely color-blind, has given birth to results that allow miscarriages like the young teenager’s death to be addressed and set right for his family.
The extreme racial hatred that created Jim Crow’s stranglehold over justice for blacks is dead. It now serves as a constant reminder that injustice can be corrected when the content of one’s character is the measuring stick , not the color of one’s skin.