Willie Francis

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For the Scottish swimmer, see Willie Francis (swimmer). For the ska and reggae singer, see Willie Francis (singer).
Willie Francis
Willie Francis (1929-1947).jpg
Born January 12, 1929 (1929-01-12)
Died May 9, 1947(1947-05-09) (aged 18)
Known for First known incident of a failed execution by electrocution in the United States[1]

Willie Francis (January 12, 1929 – May 9, 1947) is best known for being the first recipient of a failed execution by electrocution in the United States.[1] He was a black juvenile offender sentenced to death by electrocution by the state of Louisiana in 1945 (at age 16) for murdering Andrew Thomas, a Cajun pharmacy owner in St. Martinville who had once employed him.

Arrest and trial[edit]

Thomas's murder remained unsolved for nine months, until August 1945 when Francis was detained in Texas due to his proximity to an unrelated crime. Police said he was carrying Thomas's wallet in his pocket.

Francis initially named several others in connection with the murder, but the police dismissed these claims. A short time later, Francis, under interrogation, confessed to Thomas's murder, writing, "It was a secret about me and him." The actual meaning of his statement is still uncertain, but author Gilbert King, in his book, The Execution of Willie Francis, alludes to rumors in St. Martinville of sexual abuse by the pharmacist. Francis later directed the police to where he had disposed of the holster used to carry the murder weapon. The gun used to kill Thomas was also found near the crime scene and belonged to a deputy sheriff in St. Martinville who had once threatened to kill Thomas. It, along with the bullets, disappeared from evidence just before the trial.

Despite two separate written confessions, Francis pleaded not guilty. During his trial, the court-appointed defense attorneys offered no objections, called no witnesses and put up no defense. The validity of the confessions was not questioned by the defense. Two days after the trial began, Francis was convicted of murder and was sentenced to death by twelve jurors and the judge.

Execution, appeal, and second execution[edit]

On May 3, 1946, the electric chair failed to kill Willie Francis. Witnesses reported hearing the teenager scream from behind the leather hood, "Take it off! Take it off! Let me breathe!" as the supposedly lethal surge of electricity was being applied.[2] It turned out that the portable electric chair known as "Gruesome Gertie" had been improperly set up by an intoxicated prison guard and inmate from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The sheriff, E.L. Resweber, was later quoted as saying: "This boy really got a shock when they turned that machine on."[2]

After the botched execution, a young lawyer, Bertrand DeBlanc, who was best friends with the victim, decided to take Francis's case, much to the dismay of the small Cajun town. He appealed to the Supreme Court in Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459 (1947), citing various violations of his Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. These included violations of equal protection, double jeopardy, and cruel and unusual punishment.

The preliminary vote was in Francis' favor.[citation needed] A court clerk mistakenly informed Francis' legal team he had won his appeal.[citation needed] In fact, in a 5-4 decision, the appeal was rejected. The dissenting opinion asked just how many attempted executions it took before it became cruel and unusual punishment. Behind the scenes, Justice Felix Frankfurter, who cast the deciding vote to execute Francis, asked his old college roommate to secretly petition the Governor of Louisiana for a commutation, which failed.

Subsequently, Willie Francis returned to the electric chair on May 9, 1947, where this time he was successfully executed at 12:05 pm (CST).[3]


Willie Francis was the subject of a 2006 documentary titled 'Willie Francis Must Die Again', written and directed by filmmaker Allan Durand. The film, narrated by actor Danny Glover, chronicles the murder of a local pharmacist in St. Martinville, Louisiana, named Andrew Thomas, the arrest of 16-year-old Willie Francis, and the unprecedented court battle that followed. The project, produced by regional film director/producer Glen Pitre, includes first hand accounts of Francis' original trial, interviews with Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, Gilbert King, author of The Execution of Willie Francis, and cultural perspective provided by director Allan Durand.[4]

In popular media[edit]

The Residents refer to Willie Francis in one of their songs, "The Kid Who Collected Crimes".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Court to Study Strange Case Of Willie Francis". Prescott Evening Courier. May 9, 1946. Retrieved 2009-06-12. 
  2. ^ a b Justice Harold Burton. "Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber dissent". Retrieved 2009-06-10.  Justice Burton cited an affidavit by Harold Resweber, witness to the botched execution, which reported Francis' outburst.
  3. ^ Elliott Chaze (May 10, 1947). "Second Trip To Chair-Willie Francis Dies". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2009-06-12. 
  4. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0889677/


  • King, Gilbert (2008). The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder and the Search for Justice in the American South. Basic Civitas Books. 
  • Miller, Arthur S.; Bowman, Jeffrey H. (1988). Death by Installments: The Ordeal of Willie Francis. New York. 

External links[edit]