The State That Executed a Black Child Wants to Bring Back the Firing Squad

George Stinney Jr. was executed in 1944 when he was 14 years old.
May 6, 2021, 6:29pm
These undated mug shots show George Stinney, who was executed in Columbia, S.C., in June 1944. Stinney is of the youngest defendants executed in American history
These undated mug shots show George Stinney, who was executed in Columbia, S.C., in June 1944. Stinney is of the youngest defendants executed in American history. (The Item via AP)

South Carolina, the state that carried out the execution of a Black 14-year-old boy in 1944, now wants to bring back the firing squad.

The House voted 66-43 on Wednesday in favor of adding the option for death-by-firing squad to condemned inmates. The bill passed the state Senate in March, and the governor has said he’s eager to sign it.  

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Currently, prisoners on death row in South Carolina can choose to die by either lethal injection or electric chair—and that chair has a shameful history. In 1944, South Carolina wrongfully executed George Junius Stinney Jr., a young Black teenager, for allegedly killing two white girls, a crime he was proven innocent of 70 years later. 

Stinney’s execution was brought up during deliberations Wednesday by opponents of the death penalty, who discussed the horrors of Stinney’s execution. The boy’s body was so small that his executioners weren’t able to properly tighten straps to his legs before electrocuting him. He had to sit on a stack of books to reach the chair’s headpiece, according to reports at the time. 

“Not only did South Carolina give the electric chair to the youngest person ever in America, but the boy was innocent,” said state Rep. Justin Bamberg, a Democrat, according to the AP.

“These are things that should remain in those dark days of the past,” Rep. Leola Robinson, a Democrat, said during the hearing

Robinson and other Democrats attempted to add amendments to the firing squad bill, like requiring lawmakers to watch executions, and completely abolishing the death penalty—all of which were voted down. Bamberg also condemned state Republicans for being hypocritical, saying their support of anti-abortion laws was in conflict with their death penalty stance. 

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“Somehow, here today we find ourselves in the position in this body to once again give a voice to that belief system that in this state, we’re a state about life, while simultaneously taking up a bill that’s not about life. That doesn’t cater to the ‘belief system’ in our state that it's a state of life,” Bamberg said. “This is about death.”

After the bill passed, House Democratic Leader Todd Rutherford released a statement saying that firing squads and capital punishment should be kept in the past.

“It’s 2021. We should move on from these barbaric forms of punishment that are more medieval than they are modern,” he wrote in a statement. “Today, our state has taken a step backward, and I am ashamed.”

Should the bill be signed into law by Gov. Henry McMaster, South Carolina will become the fourth state to legalize death by firing squads, joining Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah. 

“We are one step closer to providing victims’ families and loved ones with the justice and closure they are owed by law,” McMaster tweeted on Wednesday night. “I will sign this legislation as soon as it gets to my desk.”

Lethal injection is South Carolina’s default method of execution, but it has been difficult to get the drugs used to put people to death. There’s a nationwide shortage of the deadly cocktail because drug companies are refusing to distribute some of the different components.

Botched executions by lethal injection are also a real problem, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. People who are put to death can be subject to several minutes of excruciating pain and asphyxiation.   

In states like Nevada, where lethal injection is the default method of execution, prisoners are asking to die by firing squad instead. Zane Floyd, who is scheduled to be executed on June 7, has requested to die by firing squad and argued in a lawsuit that a lethal injection will cause “"unconstitutional pain and suffering,” according to CNN. A similar lawsuit has been filed by a Georgia prisoner sentenced to death by lethal cocktail.