- Willie Francis
name = Willie Francis
birth_date = c. 1929
death_date = Start date|1947|5|9
known_for = first known incident of a failed execution by electrocution in the United States
Willie Francis (c. 1929 –
May 9, 1947) is best known for being the first recipient of a failed execution by electrocutionin the United States. He was an African Americansentenced to death by electrocution by the state of Louisiana in 1945 (at age 16) for murdering Andrew Thomas, a drugstore owner in St. Martinville who employed him.
The murder remained unsolved for nine months, until August 1945 when Francis was detained due to his proximity to an unrelated crime. Police claimed he was carrying the wallet of Andrew Thomas in his pocket.
Francis named several others in connection with the murder, but the police were never able to find them. A short time later, Francis, under interrogation, confessed to Thomas' murder, writing, "It was a secret about me and him." The actual meaning of his statement is still uncertain. He later directed the police to where he'd 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. It, along with the bullets, disappeared from evidence just before the trial.
Despite two separate written confessions, Francis pleaded not guilty. The state-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. Nevertheless, just two days after the trial began, Willie Francis stood convicted of murder and was sentenced to death by twelve Cajun jurors.
At his original execution on May 3, 1946, the
electric chairfailed to kill Willie Francis. Witnesses reported hearing the teenager scream from behind the leather death mask, "Take it off! Take it off! Let me breathe!" as the lethal surge of electricity was being applied. Another report states that he said "I'm n-not dying!". 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 Penitentiaryat 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, Francis 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. A court clerk mistakenly informed Francis' legal team he had won his appeal. 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. Behind the scenes, Justice
Felix Frankfurter, who cast the deciding vote to re-electrocute Francis, asked his old college roommate to secretly petition the Governor of Louisianafor a commutation, which failed.
Subsequently, Willie Francis was executed on
May 9, 1947.
Capital punishment in Louisiana
Capital punishment in the United States
Francis v. Resweber
* [http://www.supremecourthistory.org/04_library/subs_journal/04_a01.html Supreme Court case history]
* "The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder and the Search for Justice in the American South" by Gilbert King (Basic Civitas Books, 2008)
* [http://www.williefrancis.com/ The Execution of Willie Francis by Gilbert King ] at www.williefrancis.com
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