MANNING — As a circuit judge prepares to take a fresh look at the 70-year-old death-penalty case against George Stinney next week, the family of one of the two victims is looking on with a sense of dread.
About a dozen relatives and acquaintances of Betty June Binnicker gathered at a restaurant here Thursday to tell their side of one of the state’s notorious murder cases, one that ended in 1944 as Stinney was put to death at age 14, less than three months after his conviction.
Frankie Bailey Dyches of Goose Creek, whose mother-in-law was among Betty June’s older siblings, brought along a few remaining photographs of her.
Dyches helped organize the meeting to balance out media reports that have focused mostly on Stinney and whether he received justice in the Jim-Crow-era South.
“This is our aunt who we never got to know,” she said. “My mother-in-law, her sister, never got over this.”
Betty June was 11 when she and her friend, Mary Emma Thames, 7, were found dead a day after they disappeared. Both were bludgeoned in the head and left in a ditch near a church in Alcolu, a few miles north of Manning.
On Tuesday, a circuit judge will hold a hearing in Sumter to review what happened next, specifically whether Stinney’s confession and daylong trial that included no defense witnesses were flawed and if the case should be reopened.
Several who gathered Thursday at the restaurant said they had met Stinney and believe that he committed the crime.
Sadie Duke said she always believed Stinney was guilty because only a day before, he had threatened her and her friend Violet Freeman as they went to a church to collect water.
“He said, ‘If you don’t get away from here and if you ever come back, I will kill you,’” Duke said.
Evelyn Roberson, who was 15 at the time of the crime, said her husband often fought with Stinney as they tended cows near the town. “They called the (Stinney) boy ‘Bully’ because he was so bad to everybody,” she said. “Everybody he met he wanted to fight.”
Roberson said Stinney first confessed to the crime to his grandmother, who called the authorities. “I don’t feel like it’s an open case,” she said. “I think he did it, and he should have gotten punished for it and he did.”
Bob Ridgeway of Manning said he was 13 at the time and remembers his father joining the search party for the girls, and the mill whistle blowing for a long time, signaling that their bodies were found and the search was over. “There was never any question in anybody’s mind to my knowledge that he did it,” he said.
Ridgeway and Ruth Turner said they remember visiting the home to view the girls’ bodies in their caskets.
“Their faces were black and blue, even with the makeup of the undertakers,” Turner said. “Maybe (Stinney) shouldn’t have gotten the electric chair, but he should have been punished.”
Clarendon County lawyer Steve McKenzie, Clarendon County School District 3 Board member George Frierson, Atlanta lawyer Clayton Adams and others have been working to reopen the case, because they question whether justice was done.
They plan to call new witnesses, including Stinney’s sister, Aime Ruffner, who was 7 at the time and now lives in New Jersey. She is expected to testify that she was with her brother George the entire day.
Also, they have found a letter from then-South Carolina Gov. Olin Johnston’s office saying that he declined to pardon Stinney because one of two deputies who interrogated Stinney had told Johnston that Stinney said he raped the older girl before she died. McKenzie notes that the autopsies show the girls were not raped.
Also, a man who helped pull the bodies from the ditch said they were found several hundred yards from where Stinney said he saw the girls. And a recent brief said a cellmate of Stinney said the teen told him he was forced to confess.
A judge will hear the appeal Tuesday and decide whether the guilty verdict should stand. If it is thrown out, Solicitor Chip Finney III said he won’t present any evidence against granting Stinney a new trial, because almost all the original evidence has disappeared. Instead, he said he will ask for a new investigation.
Even the acquaintances and family members of the victim expressed sorrow for Stinney’s family as well as their own.
Still, they said they believe the push to reopen the case is mostly about publicity in advance of a new movie in the works, “83 Days: The Murder of George Stinney Jr.”
“It’s all about money,” Turner said.
Dyches said her family and others have tried to reach out to surviving family members of the other victim, Mary Emma Thames, without any luck.
Carolyn Geddings, a niece of Betty June, said she feels some sympathy for Stinney’s family “because they couldn’t help what he did. But I’ve got a family I’m very sympathetic to.”
Reports at the time said Stinney, who weighed 95 pounds, was too small for the straps on the state’s electric chair. When the switch was pulled, his head covering fell, and witnesses watched tears stream from his eyes.
Dyches said her grandfather and uncle witnessed Stinney’s execution in Columbia. “They thought he got exactly what he deserved,” she said. “They weren’t proud of it, but they felt it needed to be done.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.