George Frierson: Stinney family deserves apology from state
by Robert Joseph Baker | December 22, 2014 2:45 am
Last Updated: December 21, 2014 at 8:26 pm
Local historian and Clarendon School District 3 board member George Frierson has worked with the Stinney family and their attorneys for the better part of a decade to overturn what he thinks is the “biggest stain on my home state’s record in history.”
Frierson always wanted three things to happen from his involvement with the case of George Julius Stinney, an Alcolu boy executed for the bludgeoning deaths of Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 7, when he was just 14 years old.
“His exoneration was one of them, and the placing of a monument in Alcolu was the second,” Frierson said. “Both of those have come to pass. The monument was placed earlier this year, and his exoneration was achieved with Judge (Carmen T.) Mullen’s decision on Wednesday to vacate George Stinney’s 1944 conviction.”
But Frierson said the third “leg on this stool” will be harder to come by.
“I believe that South Carolina owes the Stinney family and the citizens of South Carolina a public, official apology,” Frierson said. “South Carolina is still stigmatized. We are the state that put the youngest person to death in the 20th century. That stain will not be washed away until there’s a public apology.”
Frierson said he is still shocked at Mullen’s ruling, which came Wednesday morning in a 28-page order that essentially said Stinney’s right to due process and his Constitutional rights were violated. Mullen noted the boy was questioned by white law enforcement officers without an adult present, that he was impressionable and that his confession was likely coerced. She noted his trial before an all-white jury lasted just three hours, and that his defense attorney called no witnesses and provided little cross examination of state witnesses.
Frierson said he started work in earnest on the Stinney case nearly a decade ago, but that he always knew about it growing up in Alcolu.
“I was born in Alcolu, and this case was talked about all my life,” Frierson said. “Years ago, when I started looking at the holes in the whole case, I just felt sick. The standard of our law is you’re presumed innocent until you’re proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That did not happen in this case.”
Frierson said he also felt a need to “make things right” as a military veteran.
“I fought for the dignity of the American flag,” he said. “In that courtroom on April 24, 1944, I can guarantee you there were two things: There was a flag and there was a Bible in that courtroom. The sham that happened in that courtroom was an affront to both. It was an affront to man’s law and God’s law.”
Frierson said he was at work Wednesday when a co-worker told him the news.
“I had turned my phone off, and my messages were full,” he said. “I couldn’t receive any more voicemail.”
He said he was able to speak with Aime Ruffner, Stinney’s sister who lives up north, later Wednesday night.
“The last time we spoke, we had a difference of opinion about the memorial stone (laid in Alcolu in June to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Stinney’s death),” Frierson said. “But we have reconciled. She went as far to say I’m a member of the Stinney family forever.”
Frierson said he will continue to work toward the apology he feels Stinney’s family deserves.
“We’ll be waiting on that one; I always tell people you can’t expect blood from a turnip,” Frierson said. “Our sitting governor wasn’t born when this atrocity happened 70 years ago. But she’s in the governor’s seat now and she needs to do what the governor of South Carolina in 1944 should’ve done.”
Frierson said he is hopeful that 3rd Circuit Solicitor Ernest “Chip” Finney III will not appeal Mullen’s decision. Finney said Wednesday that he had made no firm decision regarding the case as of yet.
“I will say this about Mr. Finney: I have never known him to be a fool,” Frierson said. “I want to leave it at that.”