When he was executed 70 years ago in South Carolina, 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. was so small he had to sit on a stack of books on the electric chair to reach the electrodes. Yesterday, Judge Carmen Mullins vacated the decision that had meant death for the child. Civil rights advocates have spent years trying to get the case reopened, arguing that George’s confession had been coerced. They finally succeeded.
While seven decades have passed since George was executed, his case illustrates human rights abuses inherent in the death penalty that continue today.
Police contended at the time that George, who was black, had confessed to the crime of murdering two young white girls, 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and 7-year-old Mary Emma Thames. The supposed confession came after hours of harsh interrogation, without either of his parents or an attorney present. Reports claim police officers offered the young boy ice cream if he confessed to the murders. His “confession” was said to be verbal, and there is no written record of a confession.
“False confessions are a very real, contributing factor to innocents being sentenced to death,” said Rosalyn Park, The Advocates for Human Rights’ research director. “One study shows that false confessions constitute nearly 10 percent of the causes behind wrongful convictions.” Park represents The Advocates on the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty’s steering committee, and she chairs the working group for World Day Against the Death Penalty.
George’s court-appointed white attorney, who at the time was preparing a run for the South Carolina state house, mounted no defense during a trial that lasted less than three hours. Moreover, there was no physical evidence linking George to the murder and no record on paper of his confession for the jury to consider. The courtroom was packed with 1,500 people, all white. Blacks were not allowed.
His family did not have a chance to provide the child’s alibi or present evidence in defense of their loved one because they had been run out of town. George’s father was not allowed to speak to or see his son before the trial.
It took only 10 minutes for the all-white jury to convict him. Two months later, George was electrocuted.
George’s case is representative of the racial bias pervasive throughout the capital punishment system today. “If the victim is white, a defendant is more likely to be sentenced to death than if the victim is black” said Park. “The race of the defendant also increases the likelihood of a death sentence, and black persons are disproportionately overrepresented on death row in comparison to the general population.”
George’s case also indicates how the United States is behind international norms, said Parks. Although international law has long prohibited the execution of a juvenile offender, executing juvenile offenders was only abolished in the United States in 2005 with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The Advocates for Human Rights has submitted a shadow report to the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee on the death penalty in the United States. Let’s hope that the next time the United States’ human rights record is reviewed by the United Nations, the death penalty will have been abolished in the United States, allowing the country to hold its head high.
By: Susan L. Banovetz, communication director for The Advocates for Human Rights