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|Born||January 12, 1929|
|Died||May 9, 1947
|Known for||First known incident of a failed execution by electrocution in the United States|
Willie Francis (January 12, 1929 – May 9, 1947) is best known for surviving a failed execution by electrocution in the United States. He was a black juvenile offender sentenced to death at age 16 by the state of Louisiana in 1945 for murdering Andrew Thomas, a Cajun pharmacy owner in St. Martinville who had once employed him. He was 17 when he survived the first attempt to execute him, as the chair malfunctioned. After an appeal of his case taken to the US Supreme Court failed, he was executed in 1947 at age 18.
Arrest and trial
In 1944 Andrew Thomas, a pharmacist in St. Martinville, Louisiana was shot and killed. His murder remained unsolved for nine months; in August 1945 Willie Francis, a black teenager, was detained in Texas due to his proximity to an unrelated crime. Police found that he was carrying Thomas' wallet in his pocket.
Francis initially named several others in connection with the murder, but the police dismissed these claims. A short time later under interrogation, Francis confessed to Thomas's murder, writing, "It was a secret about me and him." He had no counsel with him. The meaning of his statement is still uncertain. Author Gilbert King, in his book, The Execution of Willie Francis (2008), alludes to rumors in St. Martinville of sexual abuse of the youth 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 found near the crime scene. It belonged to a deputy sheriff in St. Martinville who had once threatened to kill Thomas. The gun, and the bullets recovered from the crime scene and Thomas' body, disappeared from police 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 Francis' confessions were not questioned by the defense, although he had no counsel at the time. Two days after the trial began, Francis was quickly convicted of murder and was sentenced to death by twelve jurors and the judge despite his having been underage at 15 at the time of the crime. As Louisiana had disfranchised nearly all blacks at the turn of the century by its new state constitution, the jury was all-white (only voters could serve).
Execution, appeal, and second execution
On May 3, 1946, Francis survived an attempt at execution by the electric chair. 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. The portable electric chair, known as "Gruesome Gertie," was found to have 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."
After the botched execution, a young lawyer, Bertrand DeBlanc decided to take Francis' case. He felt it was unjust, and cruel and unusual punishment, as prohibited in the Constitution, to subject him again to the execution process. DeBlanc had been best friends with Thomas and his decision was greeted with dismay by whites in the small Cajun town. DeBlanc took Francis' case 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. A court clerk mistakenly informed Francis' legal team he had won his appeal. The US Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, rejected the appeal. The dissenting opinion asked how many attempted executions were needed before this was deemed 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 was returned to the electric chair on May 9, 1947. He told reporter Elliott Chaze a couple of days before the execution that he was going to meet the Lord with his "Sunday pants and Sunday heart." He was pronounced dead in the chair at 12:10 pm (CST).
Willie Francis' short life 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 full story of his case and the unprecedented court battle that followed his failed execution. Produced by regional film director/producer Glen Pitre, the film includes first hand accounts of Francis' original trial, interviews with Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, a book about the death penalty, and Gilbert King, author of The Execution of Willie Francis (2008); and cultural perspective provided by director Allan Durand.
In popular media
- The Residents refer to Willie Francis in one of their songs, "The Kid Who Collected Crimes".
- Capital punishment in Louisiana
- Capital punishment in the United States
- Francis v. Resweber
- John Babbacombe Lee
- Joseph Samuel
- Pedro Medina
- "Court to Study Strange Case Of Willie Francis". Prescott Evening Courier. May 9, 1946. Retrieved 2009-06-12.
- Gilbert King, "The Two Executions Of Willie Francis", Washington Post, 19 July 2006, accessed 28 December 2014
- 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.
- Elliott Chaze (May 10, 1947). "Second Trip To Chair-Willie Francis Dies". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2009-06-12.
- 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.