ALCOLU, S.C. — A few miles off I-95, past acres of brown-and-white fields where blackbirds circle overhead, this small town in the heart of Deep South cotton country isn't known for much. It has a post office and a few churches, some abandoned houses and some nicer ones, ramshackle trailers and cotton fields.
After church on a recent Sunday there, George Frierson was scuffing a shiny black dress shoe across some gravel at a railroad crossing. Back when he was a kid the rail line split this tiny, rural town along racial lines. But for blacks like him growing up in Alcolu, the train tracks signified something even more sinister than segregation.
“Where they actually found the girls' bodies, they say it was just along the tracks,” he said.
Frierson is a local historian and community activist who works at the nearby Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church and serves on the county school board. The general area he was marking with his shoe was the scene of a double murder in 1944. Two young white girls out picking flowers had their skulls bashed in and were found in a nearby water-filled ditch.
Police said their killer used a railroad spike, and for the culprit they fingered a 14-year-old black boy named George Stinney Jr., whom a witness said had been seen talking to the girls earlier that day. The sheriff's deputies who snatched Stinney up said he confessed to the crime when they took him in for questioning. The boy's parents, who lived in a company house, were run out of town the day he was arrested and didn't see their son until his trial.
An all-white jury sentenced the teenager to death after 10 minutes of deliberation. The trial lasted two and a half hours in the Clarendon County courthouse where a local tax commissioner preparing for a State House run in an election year was appointed to represent him. No witnesses spoke in his defense. That summer, fewer than 90 days after the girls were killed, the State of South Carolina shocked George Stinney Jr. to death in an electric chair that could barely fit his small frame. He was the youngest person executed in 20th century America.
These days, not everyone who lives in the area has heard the story of George Stinney Jr. About four years ago, a white local attorney named Steve McKenzie read a newspaper account about the execution.
“I practiced law in Clarendon County for 20 years and did not even realize this case even existed,” he says. “This is a well-known case in the black community, but in the white community I'd never even heard of it. I grew up in this area … and was just, as a lawyer, was just appalled at the lack of process that was given to George Stinney.”
In October 2013, McKenzie asked the county solicitor ― the state's equivalent of a district attorney ― to give Stinney a new trial 70 years after the boy's death. A county judge could grant or dismiss the motion, but it's likely to wind up a merely symbolic move.
“It's not the strongest case in the world,” McKenzie admits.
The Palmetto State has strict rules about introducing new evidence after a trial, and obviously the death sentence has already been carried out. In 2009, Aime L. Stinney told The Sumter Item, a local newspaper, that she and her brother did interact with the girls the day they disappeared, according to reporter Robert Baker. But the new legal motion comes with sworn statements from Aime and her other brother Charles that say they were with Stinney the entire day of the murders and it would have been impossible for him to have done it.
"George's conviction and execution was something my family believed could happen to any of us in the family,” Charles Stinney wrote in his statement. “Therefore, we made a decision for the safety of the family to leave it be.”
No written record of a confession has even been produced, according to McKenzie and others who have researched the case, and nearly all the transcripts, files and records related to the prosecution have vanished except for some handwritten notes.
Part of the new petition to re-open the case also hinges on that alleged confession between a black teenager, alone in a room with multiple white sheriff's deputies in the Deep South, pre-Miranda rights era of 1944.
“The only thing that we are aware of is an oral confession,” McKenzie says. “To me, any time you put a 14-year-old in that situation and you put it in that era, then the chances of this confession either being coerced or the person being manipulated by the people who were actually doing the interrogation would be very, very high. … You're talking about white men in the Jim Crow South with a 14-year-old boy. It wasn't even close to being an even playing field.”
Obviously no can say for sure what happened in the room where the deputies questioned George Stinney Jr. 70 years ago. The officers are dead, and Stinney is dead. But one thing can be said about the circumstances in which the teenager's alleged confession was used in the swift trial that led to his execution.
In 1944, there was no body of scientific evidence, research or psychology to suggest that people would ever confess to a crime they didn't commit. Now, there's plenty.
“Our courts are only just now catching on to the fact that there's a science to interrogation that unfortunately can lead to false confessions,” says Joe McCulloch, a lawyer in South Carolina's capital city of Columbia who directs the state chapter of the anti-death penalty Innocence Project.
It wasn't until around the late 1980s when American courts began using expert witnesses to testify about false confessions at trials, says Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City who is regarded as one of the nation's leading experts on the topic. Around that same time, England was seeing a rash of false confession cases and completely revamped the way its law enforcement officers handle interrogations because of it, he says. That country moved to a less confrontational style of police interrogations, and by 1985 made sure all interrogations were recorded.
By the next decade, here in the United States, two professors at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University formed the Innocence Project to help exonerate prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing.
According to Kassin, among those early prisoners exonerated by DNA evidence, 25 percent of the cases involved false confessions.
“Nobody ― nobody ― imagined that the rate of false confessions in those cases would be so high,” he says.
These days, no murder trial in the United States could ever take just two and a half hours, as Stinney's trial did in 1944. And when it comes to the confession part of it, modern defense attorneys have a bench of experts at their disposal, some of whom have devoted their life's work researching it.
One of those is Kassin. In 1985, he wrote a landmark article that laid out three categories of false confessions and why someone would ever admit to a crime they didn't commit. One category is a voluntary confession, typically given by someone looking for attention. Another is an internalized confession, when interrogation tactics lead someone to believe they might have actually committed an act they haven't.
The third is called a coerced compliant false confession.
“These are cases where innocent people who know they're innocent are in a situation of interrogation that is so stressful, they've been there so long and they're sleep deprived and they're so tired and they are being yelled at and being called a liar and there may have been threats or promises that have been made or implied, and basically, in a nutshell, the situation has become so bad … that they use confession as the only way to get out,” he says.
Oftentimes, Kassin says, a part of it is something known as myopic decision making: when someone is under duress, he or she will do what's expedient to get out of a bad situation with little or no regard for future consequences.
The cannon of false confessions analysis these days isn't relegated to ivory towers of academia, criminal justice research papers or the dense pages of footnoted law journals. In recent years it's penetrated pop culture. The image of a 14-year-old black teenager facing two small town white cops who think he might have killed a pair of young white girls could easily be imagined in the script of a modern-day TV crime drama.
This April, PBS aired a Ken Burns documentary called “Central Park Five,” which tells a notorious story from the perspective of five black and latino teenagers who were convicted of raping a white female jogger and beating her close to death in the New York City park in 1989. They'd pleaded not guilty, and said police had manipulated confessions out of them, four of which were videotaped. They were told if they confessed they'd be able to go home. In 2002, all five of them were let out of prison when DNA evidence proved a serial rapist, who later also confessed to that particular crime, had been the real confessor responsible for the attack.
Meanwhile, the 2012 documentary “West of Memphis” traces the story of three young Arkansas men who were convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys who were found naked and hogtied in a ditch. One of them, Jessie Misskelley Jr., implicated the others in the crime after a long police interrogation, which became the basis for the arrests. DNA evidence later exonerated them.
Why did Misskelley confess? He was “borderline mentally retarded, with an IQ of 72, yet police persisted with his lengthy interrogation,” wrote Brandon L. Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, in a post on the Harvard Press Blog. “The few recorded pieces of the interrogations showed police using leading questions to try to tell him what had happened, something that interrogators are trained not to do because it contaminates a confession. We do not know what threats or other techniques were used to secure that confession.”
In 2005, after studying cases and talking to people who had falsely confessed to crimes they didn't commit, Kassin says he discovered something he calls the phenomenology of innocence.
“Innocent people trust that their innocence will ultimately work them out,” he says, adding that someone who knows they've done nothing wrong can sometimes believe that once the interrogation is over, the crime is fully examined and investigated, the police will see the evidence clearly points in another direction, and everything will be OK once they get a lawyer.
That, and myopic decision making, is much worse with young people than adults, Kassin says. They'll ask if they can call their mom and are told they can when the interrogation is over. Getting out becomes the urgent problem they need to solve and so they say whatever it might take to get them out of the situation.
It certainly isn't beyond the realm of possibilities that Stinney was up against the same or similar circumstances and psychology in 1944.
“Research couldn't be clearer: kids are much more shortsighted in their decision making than they are focused on longterm consequences,” Kassin says. “A 14-year-old fits perfectly into that model.”
A better way forward
Just as no one can know how Stinney's alleged 1944 confession to the sheriff's deputies came about ― or if it even did ― the same could be said for what the jurors in the case were thinking when they reached their verdict, sentencing a black teenager to death for the killing of two white girls in a segregated Deep South town that wanted revenge.
Steve McKenzie, the lead lawyer working to have the Stinney case re-heard, in order to right what he sees as a moral wrong, had a rather shocking confession himself when asked about that specific aspect of the trial.
“If I would have been sitting on that jury I probably would have convicted him too,” he told me. “I'll tell you why: It's simply because the white community was expecting justice and they had what they thought was a confession. So why doubt what the police officers were saying? You had two sheriff's deputies that said he confessed. For the white community, as far as they were concerned it was done, the girls were dead and let's execute the murderer and move on. And that's what they did.”
A Jim Crow era fraught with racial tension, however, can't take all the blame. The jury that heard the case of the West Memphis Three made their verdict in the 1990s, and the Central Park Five case took place in New York City.
In 2009, the American Psychology-Law Society published a white paper on false confessions authored by six researchers who studied the issue. In it they documented research that's shown how over the years judicial concern about an over-reliance on confessions by jurors has given rise to “a series of rules designed to curb possible abuses in the interrogation room, exclude unreliable confessions from trial, and prevent wrongful convictions.”
The paper concluded with the strong recommendation that electronic recording of interrogations be mandatory in the United States. Currently, the FBI doesn't have to tape confessions. At the state level, 17 states require it. At the local level, Kassin says hundreds of jurisdictions are doing it voluntarily.
In South Carolina, police can use oral confessions in court just as they did in 1944, says McCulloch of the state Innocence Project.
“As an old prosecutor, there is nothing more effective in a courtroom than a confession,” he says. “The problem with a confession if it's not recorded is that it's always subject to inaccuracy on the part of the police officer, which could be unintentional or a misinterpretation. But certainly it is subject to the accused at trial denying they ever confessed.”
McCulloch plans to help get a bill introduced in the state legislature in January that would mandate all interrogations and confessions be recorded. He adds that the purpose isn't just to give juries the best possible evidence of a confession, but also to prevent the kinds of law enforcement techniques that result in false confessions.
“If you've got the whole thing on video and the cops are feeding that information that only the murderer would know, that's what leads to the credibility of a false confession [and] the techniques of hot boxing a subject, especially if they're young,” he says.
Beyond a more uniform practice of videotaping confessions, there's another reform that renewed attention to the Stinney case might be able to spotlight.
According to Dan Macallair, who directs the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, one important lesson that could be drawn from modern reflection on that 1944 prosecution is the need to smooth out regional disparities that still exist in the juvenile justice system nationwide.
“People tend to think of the juvenile justice system in the United States as a monolith, and that's just not the case,” he says. “There are huge regional disparities in this country that we haven't addressed.”
Another is on the laws in those states as it pertains to minors. What happened to George Stinney Jr., he says, shows how “quick and easy it is to descend into barbarity” if laws are in place to allow it. Stinney's execution at his young age, he notes, was an official sanction through statute.
“As a result it became perfectly OK for prosecutors to pursue this penalty on a 14-year-old,” he says, “on a child whose feet wouldn't touch the ground when they put him in the chair.”
'As long as this is out there'
Around noon on Dec. 1, George Frierson, 56, had just finished counting the money collected in the small one-story Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Alcolu after a service. The church is just a few miles from where a local lumber baron shut down his mill for the day and assembled a search party of workers in 1944 that found the bodies of Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, who was 8, when they failed to come home.
“I was born in Alcolu, and all young black males knew about this story from our youth,” Frierson said outside the church as he looked out over a cotton field across the highway. “I wasn't born at the time of this incident, I'm not that old. But I'm considered a historian, so I started out on this juncture to see the facts of this case, not as an advocacy or activism point of view. And then it evolved into the activism. When I started out I just wanted to be sure that the facts that I heard all my life are correct.”
It turned out that facts were funny things. People believed the ones they wanted to believe.
“I won't say that the white community doesn't know, but they won't admit to what they do know,” he says about those in the town who do talk about the case.
Frierson carries around a book of old newspaper clippings and correspondence he's been given over the years by people interested in or close to the Stinney story. For the past several years he's been trying to have Stinney exonerated. In recent weeks, as news of the motion to have the case re-tried has spread, more information has come Frierson's way. He says someone in a nearby town who recognized his face on TV recently found him and gave him a copy of the autopsy reports of the two girls. Someone else sent him a letter allegedly from the governor at the time that uses harsh and graphic language in support of Stinney's execution. A man now living in Arkansas, who was a teenager at the time of the murders and says he was the member of a search party who first found the bodies, has reached out. (McKenzie says he has an affidavit from him on file, but hasn't yet filed it with the court.)
Recently, Frierson has been in talks with the state parole board, he says, and they've been working on language for a pardon, though he turned down a first draft of one. In the legal and religious sense, he says, a pardon is to be forgiven for something that you've done. He doesn't think Stinney killed anybody. At around 95 pounds, there was just no way the skinny 14-year-old could have beaten those girls to death, he believes, and then hauled them several hundred feet from the murder site and dumped them in a ditch.
“There has never been any statements about any blood attributed to Mr. Stinney in this case,” Frierson says. “It never, ever was alleged that there was any bloody clothes, blood on him or whatever.”
But Frierson is also keeping his own secrets about the case.
“There are some things that are not reported anywhere that I know to be facts that I am not at liberty to speak of, like who the real perpetrator was,” he said at one point. “I was told who it was, and I never call his name. But everybody in the community knows who it allegedly was.”
He says the Stinney family heard a deathbed confession from this unnamed man who Frierson would only describe as someone who drove a truck. As for why he won't say his name, he says the man was never arrested, tried or convicted.
“I think they call that defamation of character or slander,” he said.
Back at the railroad crossing near where the girls were killed, Frierson gestured to the scrub brush and empty fields on either side of the road. Where rows of houses and a big lumber mill used to stand is now scraggly trees and vines. Some litter blew down the road. Lately, the Stinney case has brought international attention to the small town as news of the legal motion and the details of the gripping case have made a splash in the big newspapers and cable broadcasts. A movie about it is in the works.
“I'm speaking from a biblical point of view,” Frierson said. “When God pulls his hand away from something, or puts his hand and his judgment on something, it can never prosper. There are people who have taken that view: that Alcolu can never prosper as long as this is out there. This used to be a thriving area here. See what it is now.”
Corey Hutchins is a reporter for the City Paper in Charleston, S.C., and a correspondent for Columbia Journalism Review's United States Project. His work has appeared in Slate, The Nation, and The Center for Public Integrity, among others.