Troy Davis, George Stinney, and the Death Penalty
(Insert images of Betty June Binnicke and Mary Emma Thames here.)
The recent Troy Davis execution got me thinking about the death penalty in the USA. And then I read about George Stinney, executed at age 14. One of the youngest people ever executed in the USA, and an interesting case in its own right. So I thought I’d write a post on the death penalty, and collect my ramblings on the topic in one place.
There are many opinions out there. It is probably safe to say that at this moment at some university or online criminal justice school the very topic of the death penalty is being debated. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the death penalty. The first reason is that it is barbaric. The fact that people have spent centuries trying to find “humane” ways to kill people doesn’t make it any less barbaric. Whether one stones them to death or straps them to a table and pumps poison into their veins, an execution is simply killing someone. There’s nothing civilized about that, as William Munny so succinctly put it: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”
That aside , my second problem is that human institutions are very error prone. If the authorities lock someone away by mistake, at least there is a chance it will someday be rectified. Can’t exactly dig someone up and pardon them. Which is why I have problems with the Troy Davis case. It was based mostly if not entirely on eyewitnesses, most of whom recanted. Eyewitness testimony is garbage. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with killing people like Ted Bundy, but the crime has to be monstrous and the guilt incontrovertible. The Troy Davis case didn’t pass that standard, period.
Which leads us to the George Stinney case, recently resurrected by foes of the death penalty: 1944 Georgia, two little girls picking flowers go missing. The next day searchers find their battered bodies in a pond, and authorities pick up the last person to see them alive, a teenage boy name of George Stinney. In custody he quickly confesses, though he is denied all access to his family or legal council. There is a short (one day) trial where again his family can’t help in any way, and he is sentenced to death. His family can’t afford an appeal, and just three months after the crime of which he was accused occurred, a small teenage boy was strapped to an electric chair and made it into history as the youngest person executed in the USA in the 20th century.
It’s easy to see why people use the George Stinney case as a cause célèbre in their anti-death penalty crusade. He was just a kid for Christ’s sake. His trial was a joke, his confession likely coerced. (And it’s not even in the historical record.) No appeal, and executed in three months? It’s hard not to see this as a monstrous injustice, and a product of a racist violent south where George and his family can count it as a blessing that they weren’t all lynched, as was a common custom of the time.
Now here’s the kicker. I did a little more digging on the George Stinney case. The facts above are all accurate as they go. And people then objected, the NAACP got involved to no avail. Still, people using the case to promote an anti death penalty cause might at to know a little more. Some details seem to be left out of most accounts. The ugly truth is, it’s a pretty safe bet that George Stinney did indeed brutally and senselessly murder two little girls. Say what? What is oft omitted is that after confessing, George led police to the crime scene and produced the murder weapon from hiding. And he never recanted and didn’t go to his death proclaiming his innocence. If there’s any truth to this, George was a pretty classic prototypical teenage serial killer. The fact that he got caught and executed on his first kills may very well have saved a dozen lives or more.
So what’s real? Hell if I know. I still don’t think George Stinney should have been sent to his death in such haste, but a world war was raging. (The execution took place a few weeks after D-Day, the nation’s attention was elsewhere.) I just think opponents of the death penalty might want to find a better case. If George did indeed kill those two little girls, putting him down was the best for all concerned. Right?
(The above image doesn’t exist apparently. I find it very sad that there are a million pictures of George Stinney posted on line, but I couldn’t find a single image of either of his victims. God rest their souls.)