Over the past few weeks, we’ve had people cheering Texas executions at a political debate, and an execution of a possibly innocent man in Georgia.
Of course, actual murderers have been executed. But between 1970 and 2011, 139 people convicted of murder and placed on death row have been exonerated in the U.S. That number, however, doesn’t include people like Cameron Willingham in Texas and Troy Davis in Georgia who were executed even though there were significant questions as to whether they ever committed the crimes they were put to death for. The idea of “reasonable doubt” should override any execution. But it doesn’t.
But the execution of the innocent is nothing new. Here’s a southern execution from the 1940s:
He was 14 yrs. 6mos. and 5 days old — and the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th Century
George Junius Stinney, Jr.,
[b. 1929 – d. 1944]
In a South Carolina prison sixty-six years ago, guards walked a 14-year-old boy, bible tucked under his arm, to the electric chair. At 5′ 1″ and 95 pounds, the straps didn’t fit, and an electrode was too big for his leg.
The switch was pulled and the adult sized death mask fell from George Stinney’s face. Tears streamed from his eyes. Witnesses recoiled in horror as they watched the youngest person executed in the United States in the past century die.
Now, a community activist is fighting to clear Stinney’s name, saying the young boy couldn’t have killed two girls. George Frierson, a school board member and textile inspector, believes Stinney’s confession was coerced, and that his execution was just another injustice blacks suffered in Southern courtrooms in the first half of the 1900s. …
… Stinney was accused of killing two white girls, 11 year old Betty June Binnicker and 8 year old
Mary Emma Thames, by beating them with a railroad spike then dragging their bodies to a ditch near Acolu, about five miles from Manning in central South Carolina. The girls were found a day after they disappeared following a massive manhunt. Stinney was arrested a few hours later, white men in suits taking him away. Because of the risk of a lynching, Stinney was kept at a jail 50 miles away in Columbia.
Stinney’s father, who had helped look for the girls, was fired immediately and ordered to leave his home and the sawmill where he worked. His 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.
Frierson hasn’t been able to get the case out of his head since, carrying around a thick binder of old newspaper stories and documents, including an account from an execution witness.
The sheriff at the time said Stinney admitted to the killings, but there is only his word — no written record of the confession has been found. A lawyer helping Frierson with the case figures threats of mob violence and not being able to see his parents rattled the seventh-grader.
Attorney Steve McKenzie said he has even heard one account that says detectives offered the boy ice cream once they were done.
This wasn’t an isolated case of a questionable execution in the South in the 1940s. We haven’t even gotten into lynch mobs from the 1890s to the 1960s that didn’t even bother with the formality of a trial. For example:
On September 8, 1908, William Sullivan led a lynch mob which murdered a black man named Nelse Patton. Mr. Patton had been accused of killing a white woman. William Sullivan was quoted a day later as saying, “I led the mob which lynched Nelse Patton, and I’m proud of it. I directed every movement of the mob and I did everything I could to see that he was lynched.”
So, who was William Sullivan?
SULLIVAN, William Van Amberg, a Representative and a Senator from Mississippi; born near Winona, Montgomery County, Miss., December 18, 1857; attended the common schools in Panola County and the University of Mississippi at Oxford; graduated from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., in 1875; admitted to the bar in 1875 and commenced practice in Austin, Tunica County; moved to Oxford, Lafayette County, Miss., in 1877; member of the board of city aldermen; elected as a Democrat to the Fifty-fifth Congress and served from March 4, 1897, to May 31, 1898, when he resigned, having been appointed Senator; appointed and subsequently elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Edward C. Walthall and served from May 31, 1898, to March 3, 1901; not a candidate for reelection; retired from active business and resided in Washington, D.C.; died in Oxford, Miss., March 21, 1918; interment in St. Peter’s Cemetery.
Here’s a former U.S. senator who admits to murder on the front page of the New York Times in 1908. And gets away with it.
In America, 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites were lynched between 1882 and 1968. A lot of those people weren’t murderers. They were murder victims. The days of the lynch mobs may be over, but when “respectable” people cheer for executions on national TV, we know that the attitude of the lynch mob is still with us.