in 1944 a black kid by the name of George Junius Stinney was executed for murder He was the youngest person to be executed in the U.S. How did race play a part in his conviction

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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The fatidic day of March 26, 1944 unravelled during a time in American history when war, and not racial separatism, was at center stage in the media and overall psyche of the nation. Although racial division in the U.S. South still existed, it was nowhere as heated as it was during the height of the 1920's and 30's "Southern Vigilantism" era of KKK and lynch mob fame. Racial relations in places such as Alcolu, SC, where the Stinney case takes place, may have not been tense, but they were still relatively fragile. These are the facts that frame the investigation, arrest, trial, and execution of the youngest American ever to be sentenced to death: George Junius Stinney. There are several factors in the George Junius Stinney story that certainly show bias, and not just racial. It was bias of social status, skin color, age, vulnerability, and viability. 

The Stinney case first at first struck heavily due to the cruelty of the crime and because the persons involved were all children. Stinney was only 14, weighing in at only 90 pounds, in a 5'1 frame. The two victims were 11 and 8, both white girls. The state of South Carolina, however, considered anyone over 14 years of age as an adult. Hence, that is how Stinney was to be tried.

Looking back from a modern perspective, it is clear that Stinney's case was not at all handled with the proper due process. Evidence shows that the lacklustre handling of the case seems to have occurred mainly because Stinney, a poor, black kid, was a vulnerable, viable scapegoat that could have satisfied the lack of a real suspect.

Lack of due process: First, the crime occured prior to the era of the Warren Court, which means that there were no protocols in place such as the Miranda Rights, the right to an attorney, or an advocate for minors. The sherrifs arrested Stinney after having heard that he was seen in the murder area. No rights were read to him, his parents were not brought in, and there was no advocate to ensure due process.  The evidence of bias occurs when the sherrifs department automatically assumes the veracity of the neighbors, who were white, and go straight to Stinney. This elicits the question: would they have done the same thing to a white child? The answer is simple: The interrogators went on to carry out questioning even though they clearly knew that Stinney was very young, impressionable, poor, a minority, had no representation, and no help for himself during interrogation. Clearly, they wanted what they got: a quick confession. 

Speedy confession: The second evidence of bias comes after the interrogation. Inside a room with no witnesses except those involved in the questioning, who knows what methods were employed to succeed in getting a confession of guilt in less than one hour. No parents were there, and there were no attorneys either. The deputy, H.S. Newman's words in front for the court were, regarding his investigation, that after he found the bodies: 

I arrested a boy by the name of George Stinney, he then made a confession and told me where a piece of iron about 15 inches long were, he said he put it in a ditch about 6 feet from the bicycle which was lying in the ditch”.

The problem with this "confession" is that nobody knows to this day how it was obtained. Moreover, the information given to the deputy was NOT new information: the deputy had already seen the weapon, and he had located it way before Stinney supposedly told him about it. We will never know if the deputy planted the words on the suspect, or if the suspect indeed directed them to the evidence. Yet, here we have a first hand witness whose unfavorable conditions rendered him immediately as guilty. This is the domino effect taking place: you are young, then you are vulnerable. You are black, then you are suspicious. You are poor, so you are likely to do desperate things. With no proper protocols for interrogation in place, the latter assumptions render this arrest entirely prejudiced.  

Hot "buttons"- cheap thrill information- Race bias, in itself, did play a major role when the media began to publish salacious details in newspapers of supposed confessions that may or may not have come straight from Stinney's mouth. Talks about Stinney confessing to wanting to have sex with one of the girls, Betty June, prior to murdering her really shook the passions of the people, who started to get mobs together wanting to lynch Stinney. Interestingly enough, those comments really seem to have been pivotal to the heightened racial tension that was taking over Alcolu. This serves as further evidence that bias was at the epicenter of this case. 

Inadequate representation- Like a mirror image of To Kill a Mockingbird, the April 1944 trial, conducted in a separate city, Manning, would witness a defendant with nobody in court that was on his side. His family had already ran away from town, and the town had already made up its mind about Stinney. Even Stinney's lawyer, who was court-appointed, basically navigated through the facts with the ease that Stinney had already confessed. He had nothing to prove, and he brought nothing further. 

The worse part of the case was the obviously pre-planned composition of the jury:  Twelve white males. 

Sensationalism: Although the people had their minds obviously made up, egged on by the media and by public speculation, no attempt was made to change the venue of the trial to a neutral location. As it was, the media, local curious expectators, and even people from other cities filled up the courtroom to capacity. The curious morbosity of the people made a spectacle out of the case. 

Two (very) different versions: Bias is also obvious in that nobody made any comments on the radical difference between the two versions of Stinney's "confession". Stinney first had said that the killing occured in self defense after the girls attacked him when they erroneously thought that he was coming to attack them. Stinney claimed that when the younger of the sisters fell into a ditch he tried to help. However, the older sister mistook the gesture and thought Stinney had either done it, or was trying to hurt her. As she attacked Stinney, he had no choice but to defend himself with the rod.  

The second version, also presented in court, shows Stinney as a predator, watching the girls from a distance, wanting the elder sister for sex, killing the younger sister because she was inconvenient company, and then killing the older sister for resisting him. 

Upon further inquiry, the final question asked was whether the elder sister showed signs of sexual abuse or not, to which the witness expert responded that it may or may not have happened. Again, the framing of a poor, defenseless black boy is evident, and the fuel that kept the fire going was the public thirst for morbid things. 

Very speedy verdict:  It took ten minutes for the 12 while male jurors to find the accused guilty, and to recommend the death penalty for him. The entire thing, from the commission of the crime, to the moment of execution took less than 3 months. There were no appeals from defense. The governor did not want to concede to any changes in the sentencing as to not to upset anybody, and Stinney was eventually electrocuted. 

In summary:

South Carolina did what it thought was correct with the information they had, under the circumstances that they had and within the legal parameters of the 1940s, whether they were fair or not. However, the fact that this child was black certainly reignited old ideas, falacies, anger, and animosity against people of color. It is more than likely that had this child been from a rich, white family he would have also been at the center of a sensationalist trial. However, Southern Vigilantes were not that far back in history: there was recency and memory from the days of the lynch mobs, and it was clear that mobs were to be formed again. Yes. There is a serious element of racial bias in the case.

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rachellopez's profile pic

rachellopez | Student, Grade 12 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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In the 1940's, African Americans still were not considered equal in the United States. All the schools, restaurants, work places, etc. were still segregated. Even though in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution all people are given equal rights, African Americans, and many other races, were denied those rights. This didn't start changing until 1954.

As for the case, it states that they had no physical evidence that George Stinney had done the crime. They only assumed it was him because the girls had spoken to him before they murder took place. It also says that his father was fired right after and his family was forced to leave; he had no way to defend himself. Plus, the trial consisted of all whites.

Obviously racism was involved because if it had been a white man they would have held a proper trial, had evidence, and would have given him an opportunity to prove his case. However, because African Americans were not considered "people" by Americans or the government, they said he was guilty with no proof.

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