March 10, 2014 12:00 PM

By any standard of justice, the facts of State of South Carolina v. George Stinney Jr. are chilling. On March 24, 1944, two white girls were discovered bludgeoned to death in the lumber mill town of Alcolu. Hours later police detained a local black teen, 14-year-old George Stinney Jr., then quickly announced he had confessed to the murders. When Stinney stood trial the following month, the proceeding concluded in a single afternoon. His court-appointed attorney, Charles Plowden, neither cross-examined any prosecution witnesses nor offered any of his own. After deliberating for 10 minutes, the jury of 12 white men reached a verdict: guilty in the deaths of Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 7. Two months later Stinney was strapped into an electric chair way too big for his slender 5’1″, 95-lb. frame. As his body convulsed, the mask covering his face was dislodged. “They went and got a towel and wrapped it around my brother’s head,” says his sister Amie Ruffner, now 77. “It caught on fire.” Afterward his family, afraid someone might desecrate his grave, buried George in an unmarked plot.

Now Stinney’s three surviving siblings are seeking something they are certain their brother did not receive in his short lifetime: justice. To clear Stinney’s name, attorneys for the family faced off against prosecutors in the Sumter County courthouse in January to argue that the 70-year-old verdict had been based on a coerced confession and should be thrown out. “The evidence is all gone, people are all dead,” says defense attorney Matt Burgess. “But we are asking for this judgment to be set aside.” For siblings of Stinney, who was the youngest juvenile to be executed in the U.S. in the 20th century, the case is deeply personal. “God has already cleared his name in heaven,” says Ruffner. “I’m looking for it to be cleared on Earth.”

In court, attorneys questioned witnesses about old photos and the accuracy of a map and debated whether the case had judicial standing. Arguing for the prosecution, Ernest Chip Finney III says that absent new evidence, there are no legal grounds to disturb the verdict. “Newspaper accounts were so inconsistent,” he says. “And the newspaper articles are the only thing that have survived the passage of time.” Given the existence of a confession and the absence of an alternate suspect, he says, “We have to let the judgment of the court rest as it is.” Frankie Dyches, 67, a niece of Betty Binnicker, the older of the two victims, insists the jury convicted the right guy. “It’s a reopening of an old wound,” she says.”He was not framed.” She and another niece, Carolyn Geddings, say older relatives remember Stinney as a troublemaker. “He was a bully,” says Dyches. “He had a very short fuse.”

In Stinney circles, a different portrait emerges. Raised by strict, churchgoing parents—his dad, George Sr., a sawmill hand, his mom a school cook—Stinney was a seventh grader who looked after the family’s cow. Memories of the events surrounding George’s arrest remain vivid. A day earlier, Ruffner recalls, she and George had been sitting on a railroad track, watching the cow graze, when the girls walked by, pushing a bicycle. “They said, ‘Could you tell us where we could find some May pops,'” says Ruffner, referring to wildflowers. “We said, ‘No,’ and they proceeded to go on about their business.” That night when the girls were reported missing, George Sr. joined the search. The next day the girls’ bodies were found in a ditch, their bike on top of them and a wheel lying nearby. A medical examiner’s autopsy report filed the next day described multiple blows from a round instrument to both girls’ heads. The report noted a “slight bruise” on Binnicker’s genitalia.

Also that day, police took George into custody, but it’s not clear why. George Sr., who worked at the local sawmill, was promptly fired from his job. That night the family fled town—permanently—moving to their grandmother’s home in nearby Pinewood. “We had no choice,” says Ruffner. “The crowd came and said they were going to get us.” After that, her brother Charles, now 78, testified in an affidavit, “I never saw George again.”

Without access to his parents or an attorney, Stinney quickly confessed to murdering the girls and later allegedly told a prison chaplain he did it with “a piece of iron.” During the swift trial that followed, the Jim Crow South kept his family from being in the courtroom, where Stinney’s was the only black face. The defense presented no written confession, no bloody clothing, no murder weapon to tie the boy to the murders. No transcript of the proceedings remains, but jurors were apparently persuaded by the two police officers who testified that Stinney’s weapon had been a railroad spike and his motive sexual assault.

Two days before Stinney’s execution, then-governor Olin Johnston defended the capital sentence, writing in a letter, “Stinney killed the smaller girl to rape the larger one. Then he killed the larger girl and raped her dead body.” By then it was too late for an attorney to point out that the governor’s description contradicted the autopsy report, which said both girls’ hymens were intact. Cellmate Wilford Johnny Hunter, then 19, swore in a recent affidavit that during conversations with Stinney, the boy repeatedly denied committing the murders and recanted his confession, telling Hunter that “they made him say those things.”

The next time the Stinney siblings saw George, he was in a partially opened casket, burned beyond recognition. As they now await Judge Mullen’s decision, Ruffner is clinging to her mother’s final words before she died: “There’s only one thing I want in this life: I want them to clear my son’s name.”

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