In 76 year old murder case, author Kendall Bell puts reader on jury for new ‘trial’

New nonfiction book 'Triple Tragedy in Alcolu' by Kendall Bell
New nonfiction book ‘Triple Tragedy in Alcolu’ by Kendall Bell

If you grew up in South Carolina in the 1950s, chances are you’d eventually hear someone mention the case of George Stinney, Jr. Depending on the context of the conversation, you’d hear one of two things.

The 14 year old black teen executed for the horrific murder of 11 year old Betty June Binnicker was truly guilty and justice was served.

The 14 year old black teen was railroaded, pure and simple, and there’s no other way to see it.

A new book by Kendall Bell, Triple Tragedy in Alcolu, is out, and instead of hyperbole and innuendo, the author takes a neutral approach to his subject matter.

Kendall Bell, author of 'Triple Tragedy in Alcolu', ready for book launch
Kendall Bell, author of ‘Triple Tragedy in Alcolu’, prepares to sign books at his launch at the Sumter (SC) Opera House on February 20. (Photo from Bell’s page on Facebook; posted by Amy M. Vaughn)

Films and documentaries have been made about the case. Instead of resorting to sensationalism, Investigation Discovery style, author Kendall Bell puts the reader on the jury, in a manner of speaking. Bell’s new book Triple Tragedy in Alcolu diligently covers the minutiae of the original trial and the hearing held decades after the crime occurred.

Was justice served, or did a young man die for a killing he didn’t commit?

It helps to know the circumstances of the case. Stinney was charged for only one murder, of the victim Betty June Binnicker. Her playmate, 7 year old Mary Emma Thames, was also killed. Whether the second case should have been tried is moot—personally, I think it should have because if you are going to kill a 14 year old for a crime, all facts should be disclosed. The facts, in so many ways, are the problem with this “triple tragedy.”

Stinney was caught in the cultural context of his time, and if we learn any lesson from the tragedy, it should be that everyone deserves due process and a fair trial. As I read the book, I was horrified at the manner of delivering ‘justice’ in that day and age. Even if he was convicted today, there would be little resemblance to the trial Stinney experienced then and now.

Stinney remains the youngest person ever executed by the government on any level in the 20th century in our country.

Bell as author seemed intent on presenting facts and letting the reader decide what happened. It’s obvious he did his research, relying on the few original documents surviving to this day and on first hand interviews that should’ve been conducted, but weren’t, before the first trial. The racial paradigm for those times certainly played a role in Stinney’s treatment and there is no way to deny that.

Personally, I have a theory about the murders, but it’s based on pure conjecture. The girls’ bodies were discovered in a ditch containing about three inches of water. Binnicker’s bicycle, minus its front wheel, lay atop the bodies.

No crime scene photos exist. The autopsies weren’t conducted by experts as would be the case today. Stinney was interrogated without parents or an attorney present. He did “confess” to the crime, however, and it is that confession that is at the heart of much debate then and now.

Bell covers the case from inception to Stinney’s execution, and then goes one better. He provides direct testimony from the closest thing to a real trial Stinney got, occurring long after his death. When you come to the conclusion of the book, you’re left to make your own decisions about Stinney’s guilt or innocence.

My theory—repeating it’s based on pure conjecture—is that someone may have accidentally injured the girls on the bike and then finished them off in a panic about the consequences. Original documents from the physicians who examined the bodies suggested a hammer may have been the weapon of choice, but even filmmakers have overlooked another possibility—a tire iron. An old style tire iron (part of the jack) used to have a tip that might resemble a hammer if you made impressions of both.

I don’t have any real answers except those in my imagination based on information in Bell’s book.

The only real conclusion I came to is that this is a traumatic reminder of the disadvantages for anyone outside the political class, especially a black person, caught up in the justice system of that day in a small town where big crimes rarely happened, and when they did, the community had few resources to handle it. Due process was given lip service and nothing else.

The tragedy was indeed a “triple” one. Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames went out one sunny afternoon in search of maypops, that strange little fruit we used to throw at each other in games of war when we were kids. By day’s end, both girls were dead and a 14 year old was swiftly convicted and executed with nary a concern about his constitutional rights. The color of Stinney’s skin  made it even easier to dismiss his rights.

Books and documentaries, even a fictionalized film, have been made about this case. Bell’s book serves the canon of information about this case in one regard. There is no fictionalization, and only the facts are presented. No other artistic rendering of Stinney’s story is as fact-based as Bell’s account, in my opinion.

Read the book, and make up your mind for yourself—that’s the approach journalists once took with controversial material, and it’s the most honest approach anyone presenting the case in arts and letters has adopted to date.

Finally, I’d recommend this book to attorneys, if for no other reason than the excellent exegesis of the Writ of Coram Nobis in US law. How did the judge rule in the 2014 hearing to determine whether Stinney got a fair trial? Read the book. It’s worth the time of anyone who cares about justice.

(Kay B. Day/Feb. 26, 2020)


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