In 1945, a black sixteen-year-old named Willie Francis was sentenced to death in St. Martinville, Louisiana. Willie was convicted of killing Andrew Thomas, a fifty-three-year-old Cajun pharmacist, and the case revealed many flaws in the state’s justice system: Willie’s jury included no black jurors; his court-appointed attorneys did not present a defense and declined to cross-examine the State’s witnesses; and the State’s case relied on a confession Willie made to police with no lawyer present.
Willie’s conviction was upheld, and his execution went forward on May 3, 1946. But when executioners strapped Willie into “Gruesome Gertie,” the electric chair that had been used to execute twenty-three people, he convulsed and screamed, and did not die. When the sheriff ordered the electricity shut off, Willie was taken back to his cell, spared and hopeful. Reflecting on the experience afterward, Willie wrote:
“I didn’t think about my whole life like at the picture show. Just, ‘Willie, you’re going outta this world in this bad chair.’ Sometimes I thought it so loud it hurt my head and when they put the black bag over my head I was all locked up inside the bag with the loud thinking . . . I felt a burning in my head and my left leg and I jumped against the straps. When the straps kept cutting me I hoped I was alive and I asked the electric man to let me breathe. That’s when they took the bag off my head.”
Within an hour of the failed execution, Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis ordered the chair fixed and a second try scheduled for one week later. Betrand DeBlanc, a young Cajun lawyer returning from war, took on the boy’s case and challenged the state’s right to try to kill Willie again. Before the United States Supreme Court, Mr. DeBlanc argued that a second electrocution would violate double jeopardy protections and constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal in Francis v. Resweber in January 1947. On May 9, 1947, at 12:05 p.m., Willie Francis died in Louisiana’s electric chair.
From the Equal Justice Initiative’s A History of Racial Injustice – 2018 Calendar.
“The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is proud to present A History of Racial Injustice – 2018 Calendar. America’s history of racial inequality continues to undermine fair treatment, equal justice, and opportunity for many Americans. The genocide of Native people, the legacy of slavery and racial terror, and the legally supported abuse of racial minorities are not well understood. EJI believes that a deeper engagement with our nation’s history of racial injustice is important to addressing present-day questions of social justice and equality.