MANNING, S.C.—The year was 1944. The U.S. was in the midst of a second world war. Gasoline cost just 21 cents a gallon and minimum wage was just 30 cents per hour.
During this same time, the small community of Alcolu in Clarendon County was a bustling area, home to a tight-knit community and a thriving lumber mill. Here, neighbors trusted one another. Doors were never locked. Strangers were welcomed with open arms. People simply felt safe.
That all changed; however, on March 23, 1944. On this particular day, Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 8, decided to go looking for wildflowers. Some time that very day, the two girls came in contact with George Stinney, 14, and his sister who were out walking the family cow named Lizzie. According to court documents, the girls asked if they knew where they might find some “maypops.” According to Stinney’s baby sister, Amie L. Ruffner, they told the girls ‘no’ and they ‘went on about their business.’
That very night, the two girls never returned home. Their families became worried and a community search was organized. At some point during the search, Stinney reportedly acknowledged seeing the girls earlier in the day and quickly became a suspect in the case.
Just one day after the girls vanished, a group of lumbermen found their bodies in a water-filled ditch. Both had been killed by blows to the head. Old reports indicated a railroad spike was used as the murder weapon. Other reports indicate a large, blunt iron was used. Nevertheless, Stinney, just a teen, was arrested and charged with their murders.
According to one of Stinney’s sisters, their father was fired from his job at the lumber mill and fearing for the safety of the family, they were forced to move from Alcolu. Her parents, she recalled, were also not allowed to speak or see her brother prior to the trial or any time after.
On April 24, 1944—one month after the murders, Stinney stood trial for the crimes. The trial was very brief, taking a jury only about ten minutes to come back with a guilty verdict. The teen was sentenced to die by electrocution. He was put to death two months after the trial, 83 days after the murders, becoming the youngest person ever electrocuted in the United States.
Depending on whom you ask, Stinney never truly committed the crime. In fact, 70 years after the murders, lawyers for the Stinney estate are determined to clear his name and have the murder conviction reversed.
In January 2014, a hearing did take place in Manning where lawyers for the Stinney family presented their case for a new trial before a judge. It’s now up to that very judge to decide if Stinney, despite the fact that he’s no longer alive, should be granted a second trial. To this date, she has yet to make a decision.
Lawyers for the Stinney family argue that the teen never had a fair shot at justice from the very start. After all, he and his family lived during an era where racial tensions were high, particularly in the south. Stinney was black and the girls were white.
The lawyers also claim that no physical evidence ever linked Stinney to the crime and that it would have been a “physical miracle” for the teen, who weighed only 95 pounds, to singlehandedly overcome the two girls, murder both of them, and drag them from their bicycle to the ditch where they were left. Stinney, they say, was ultimately forced into a confession by law enforcement.
However, family of the victims and others present during the time of the murder investigation say otherwise.
While the Internet, TV and newspapers have been inundated with stories advocating for George Stinney’s innocence—those representing the side of the two girls say Stinney does not deserve a new trial and that the jury got it right the first time.
Below are their perspectives on the case:
Frankie Bailey Dyches: “He had ample time to tell the truth if he was coerced.”
Frankie Bailey Dyches of Goose Creek never knew her aunt, Betty June. She was born two years after her aunt’s murder. Dyches’ mother, who passed away at the age of 90, was ten years older than her little sister.
To balance out previous media reports about the case that have heavily questioned whether Stinney got a fair trial, Dyches recently organized a meeting at a local restaurant in Manning.
“It’s always been one-sided. They’re trying to make it about race, and it wasn’t,” she stressed. “It’s not that we believe hearsay that we grew up with all these years. We’ve done our research. We’ve talked to people that were actually there. The people that read these articles in the newspaper don’t know the whole truth.”
Dyches’ husband once owned the barbershop inside the Berkeley Motel in Moncks Corner before it was demolished to make way for the Walgreens store that now stands there today.
A man by the name of S.J. Pratt was one of her husband’s frequent customers. According to Dyches, shortly after Carolina Skeletons was released, a 1991 movie loosely based on the Stinney case, Pratt told her husband that he had been one of the arresting officers. That’s when Dyches’ husband informed Pratt that his wife was actually the niece of one of his victims.
“He then sought me out,” said Dyches. “Pratt looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘don’t you ever believe that boy didn’t kill your aunt because from the time I became involved, from the whole chain of events, there was not one link broken.’”
According to Dyches, Pratt had questioned an elderly black man in the case if he might have known ‘who could have been mean enough to do this?’ Pratt reportedly told Dyches that the man automatically said ‘George Stinney.’
“That’s when he went down to the Stinney house, and he (Pratt) said he heard them discussing it (the murders) outside the open window,” she said.
Dyches said Pratt placed George Stinney and his half-brother, Johnny, in separate rooms and questioned them individually.
“He said that George Stinney confessed and told us exactly what happened,” said Dyches.
Johnny reportedly told Pratt the same story George told officers about committing the crime.
“Pratt said he asked George, ‘can you show me the murder weapon?’” said Dyches.
According to Dyches, George led Pratt to a low end of the field where the bodies were found.
“He walked up and reached down twice, and on the second time he reached down, he pulled up the iron spike and gave it to him,” Dyches stated. “He had ample time to tell the truth if he was coerced. We have talked to people.”
Right before George was electrocuted, Pratt went to the penitentiary and reportedly asked if he knew why he was here.
“George replied ‘yes,’” said Dyches. “‘Pratt then asked him, ‘did you commit this crime?’ He said, ‘yes, sir.’ He said ‘did anybody make you say anything that you didn’t want to say, and he said ‘no, sir.’”
According to Dyches, Pratt then asked the boy if he knew that he was about to die.
“He said, ‘yes, sir’ and then Pratt said, ‘goodbye, George.’ And he said, ‘goodbye sheriff,’ recalled Dyches.
Dyches’ grandfather attended the electrocution.
“He said he wasn’t proud of it, but it needed to get done what had been done to his baby,” said Dyches.
Dyches said her family and others have tried to reach out to the surviving family members of the other victim, Mary Emma Thames, without any luck. Dyches says she has a few cousins still in the area—some believed to be in Berkeley County.
Ruth Hill Turner: “I’m sorry that they electrocuted him.”
Ruth Hill Turner grew up in Alcolu and last spoke to Betty June the very day she went missing.
“Betty June came to our home after school that afternoon to find my sister,” she said. “She wanted my sister to go with her to find flowers, so she could take them to her teacher.”
Ruth, just 13-years-old at the time, remembers telling Betty June that her sister wasn’t home.
“My sister, Violet, had gone home with somebody on the bus that afternoon and hadn’t come home so Betty June left,” she said.
Later that night she recalls getting a knock at the door to her parents’ home.
“The men were gathering to go and look for them (the girls) because they hadn’t come home,” she said. “The men searched until well over into the night and came home. The next morning they went out again. They weren’t out too long before they found them.”
The following Sunday after church, Ruth says she and her family attended the girls’ wakes.
“At that time, they brought the bodies back home. I went to the Binnicker home and went to the Thames home,” she recalls. “I remember seeing the little girls in the caskets and their faces were black and blue from where they had been beaten in the face. We’d never seen anything like that before. Their faces were just bruised terribly.”
Ruth not only knew Betty June but she also knew George Stinney.
“I had seen the Stinney boy out by the church with his cow and he would bring the cow down there in the afternoon to eat the green grass there on the railroad tracks,” she said.
Although she doesn’t recall why, she said Stinney frightened her.
“I don’t know if he had threatened me before or what,” she said. “If I saw him, I would turn around and go to the Roberson house (a neighbor). I wouldn’t go near him.”
Ruth’s sister died in 2008, but says Violet had told her that before the girls were killed he had threatened her.
“She said if I had been at home and had gone with Betty June, he would have killed me,” she recalls. “Even the black people knew that he had killed the children. There was never any doubt about who killed them. We had black people that worked in the house, and Daddy worked with black people at the mill, and they all knew that he killed them. There was never any doubt about it.”
According to lawyers for the Stinney family, rumors have surfaced surrounding a deathbed confession made years ago by a member of another white family—a man who claimed to have been the culprit. This; however, has never been proven.
“The first time that I ever heard that someone else was suspected of killing them was about five or six years ago,” said Ruth.
She believes in custody Stinney was safe; otherwise, she believes the community would have lynched him. As for his death sentence, that’s one of the only things she wishes had been done differently.
“I’m sorry that they electrocuted him. I wish they had sent him to prison. But that’s the way things were done back then. We didn’t have any control over it. That’s the way the judicial system went.”
Robert Ridgeway: “Stinney led searchers to the bodies.”
Robert Ridgeway was a teenager when his father and some of the other men in Alcolu spent hours searching for Betty June and Mary Emma.
“They told the people in the search that if they were found, they would blow the whistle at the mill,” he said. “One minute til’ seven the next morning, the mill whistle went off. It was a long, long blast.”
Ridgeway didn’t personally take part in the search but remembers his father keeping the family informed about it.
“Dad told us, and he had no reason to lie to us, that this black lady had told Mr. Alderman, the owner of the lumber mill, that her grandson who was staying with her had told her what he did,” Ridgeway recalled.
Ridgeway says that day Alderman along with the other authorities went to the Stinney house, picked him up, hid him in the back seat of the car, and covered him with a coat so nobody would know he was in it.
“He (George) carried them back to the location to where the little girls were found and showed them where they were. The bicycle was in the ditch with them,” Ridgeway recalls his father telling him.
After the bodies were found, Ridgeway recalls a lot of sadness filled the small, tight-knit community.
“I saw no uprising or running people out of town. That may have been the case, but I didn’t know it. I was 13-years-old at the time,” he said. “I was saddened more for the little girls than I was for the kid that was guilty. He admitted to the crime. No one questioned the fact that he didn’t do it. He did it.”
According to Ridgeway, his father told the family that Stinney had beat the girls to death actually with a drift pin off of a freight car.
“Dad said he (George) admitted using and, in fact, showed it to them,” said Ridgeway. “I think he got exactly what he deserved. He just didn’t get it soon enough.”
Sadie Duke: “George Stinney threatened to kill me.”
Sadie Duke remembers the day when Ruth’s sister, Violet Freeman, went home with her after school.
“After we got though eating, we went down to the church to get some water because we had an open well. Moma didn’t like for us to drink that water, so we went to get some water to take back to the house.”
While getting water, the girls also started to play around the church.
“This black boy came down there, pushing a tricycle. He came up to us and he wanted to know what we were doing down there. I said, ‘we came to get some water, and we just got to playing down here,” she recalled.
Duke, he was just two months shy of turning 8-years-old, said that’s when Stinney threatened her and her friend.
“He said, ‘well, if you don’t get away from here, and if you come back, I will kill you,” Duke stated.
The following day Betty June and Mary Emma went missing. George Stinney was named as their killer.
“I got real upset because that could have been my friend and I,” she said. “ We knew those girls. We went to school together. They were very sweet girls.”
Duke said the day the girls went missing her mother saw the girls talking to Stinney at the church.
“She started down there to the church because she saw those little girls talking to the little black boy and knew that he had threatened us,” she said.
As her mother made her way to the church, which was located close to her house, Sadie says that’s when someone up in the yard.
“So she turned around and went back to the house. She always regretted that she didn’t go on down there,” Duke stated. “I can’t say that he killed them, but I firmly believe that he did.”
Carolyn Geddings: “We are not racists.”
For Carolyn Geddings, she and the rest of her family would prefer that the George Stinney case be left in the past.
“I think if they wanted to bring it up, they should have brought it up a long time ago,” she said.
In 1944, her mother, who was also Betty June’s sister, testified during the trial.
“She gave the girls some scissors to cut the flowers with, and they asked her to identify them,” she said.
This year, her family attended the hearing in Manning that will determine if Stinney should be given a new trial. She says since the case has been put back into the limelight, they have been the center of unpleasant comments.
“There’s being a lot of things said about us, about the Binnicker family, people making comments about us calling us racists and we’re not—never have been,” she said.
Geddings believe Stinney did kill his aunt, but doesn’t believe he should have ever received the death penalty.
“I think because of his age, he shouldn’t have been electrocuted,” she said. “I hope the Stinney family can get some peace because I’m sure it’s been hard on them, and I feel for them. I feel bad for my family also.”
…Seventy years later
For Dyches and the others who knew the murdered girls, they anxiously await a judge’s decision on whether the case will be reopened.
Seventy years later, the question has been asked over and over again– why now?
If you ask family and friends of the girls, they believe the push for a new trial is motivated by financial gain and publicity for a new movie in the works called: 83 Days. It is set to begin filming in the summer of 2014.
“We (Pleroma Studios) are filing a wrongful death suit against the state of South Carolina on behalf of the Stinney family, demanding his exoneration,” wrote those associated with the film on their Facebook page back in 2012.
The attorneys for the Stinney family have since set up a defense fund for the case—and hope to establish a scholarship as well.
“Our goal is to clear the name of George Stinney, Jr., before this miscarriage of justice becomes forever a glaring blemish upon the fabric of our nation’s history,” wrote the attorneys on the website.
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