On May 3, 1946, Willie Francis, a seventeen-year-old Black youth from Saint Martinville, Louisiana, was sentenced to death by electric chair. Willie was accused of the murder of a pharmacist named Andrew Thomas in 1944, but substantial doubts about his guilt arose in the decades after his death. The Saint Martinville police had failed to apprehend anyone for the murder months after Thomas was killed. In a last-ditch effort to resolve the case, Saint Martinville’s sheriff called the head of police in Port Arthur, Texas, and urged him to arrest “any male” from Saint Martinville found in Port Arthur.
Willie had been mistakenly arrested on a separate narcotics charge when visiting one of his sisters in Port Arthur at the time. Instead of dismissing the case, the police continued questioning Willie about Thomas’s murder at Saint Martinville. Willie quickly signed a confession and handed it over to the cops. There was no one to advise the boy.
Given his age and the circumstances of his detention, it’s improbable that he made such a statement without the cops in his interrogation room using force, threats, or violence. Willie was put on trial in front of a jury of twelve white men after pleading not guilty. Willie’s lawyers didn’t call any witnesses, didn’t make an opening statement and didn’t raise any objections. Willie was found guilty of murder two days after the trial began. The jury deliberated for fifteen minutes. He was given the death penalty.
The Full Story
The case of Willie Francis is the first known instance of a failed electrocuted execution in the United States. In St. Martinville, Louisiana, in 1944, a stuttering 17-year-old, the youngest of 13 children from an impoverished black family, allegedly murdered a 54-year-old white pharmacist named Andrew Thomas.
When the police failed to make an arrest or even locate real leads after Thomas was murdered in his bed, Francis, a former employee, was accused with the crime and sentenced to death.
Then came the stunning moment. Something went wrong on May 3, 1946, when the 17-year-old was strapped into Louisiana’s electric chair, “Gruesome Gertie.” When the switch to kill Francis was flipped, he began twitching uncontrollably in his chair. When officials convened inside the little parish jail in St. Martinville, La., they recognized something was wrong: the electrocution was not working.
Francis’ voice could be heard from underneath the death hood saying, “Take this off.” In a report from NYDailyNews.com, he was cited as saying, “I can’t breathe.”
One of the authorities responded, “You’re not supposed to breathe.” “I am not dying,” the boy maintained. And he was absolutely correct. Though his heart was racing, he was still alive minutes after being lifted out of the chair, according to sources.
“God fooled with the electric chair,” Francis told reporters. Perhaps it wasn’t God after all, because the “portable” chair, described as a “300-pound behemoth of oak, leather, and wiring” that was hauled by truck from Louisiana jail to Louisiana jail to carry out executions, was not properly set up.
Captain Ephie Foster and a convict called Vincent Venezia, who worked as an assistant electrician in the Louisiana prison system, were the ones in charge of setting it up. They erroneously grounded the current while setting up the chair, which was connected to electricity generators outside the jail by wires, among other mistakes, and the chair failed to accomplish its duty.
Francis later described his ordeal in the chair:
“I wanted to say good-bye, too, (Captain Foster had cheerfully said, “goodbye Willie”, before throwing the switch) but I was so scared I couldn’t talk. My hands were closed tightly. Then—I could almost hear it coming. The best way I can describe it is: Whamm! Zst! It felt like a hundred and a thousand needles and pins were pricking in me all over and my left leg felt like somebody was cutting it with a razor blade.
“I could feel my arms jumping at my sides and I guess my whole body must have jumped straight out. I couldn’t stop the jumping. If that was tickling it was sure a funny kind (He had been told it would tickle and then he’d die). I thought for a minute I was going to knock the chair over. Then I was all right. I thought I was dead. Then they did it again! The same feeling all over. I heard a voice say, “‘Give me some more juice down there!’” And in a little while somebody yelled, ‘”I’m giving you all I got now!”
“I think I must have hollered for them to stop. They say I said, “Take it off! Take it off!’” I know that was certainly what I wanted them to do—turn it off.”
One of the intoxicated executioners, Captain Foster, screamed at him as he was being pulled from the chair, “I missed you this time, but I’ll get you next week if I have to use an iron bar!”
Francis, on the other hand, was not executed the next week; instead, he made national news in Louisiana, and his case even reached the Supreme Court.
Francis’ father, Frederick Francis, was evidently dissatisfied with the legal assistance his son had got during his trial after the botched execution. According to the Herald Record, Francis’ court-appointed defense attorney altered Francis’ plea from not guilty to guilty without his consent, didn’t make an opening statement, didn’t call any witnesses, didn’t raise any objections, and didn’t put up any defense during his trial.
When the boy’s execution failed, his father saw it as an opportunity to hire a new attorney to handle the case. As a result, while the state planned to murder Francis once more, Frederick was able to get the services of Bertrand DeBlanc, a lawyer who had also been a close friend of Thomas prior to his death.
DeBlanc agreed to go to court on Francis’ behalf. He didn’t think the youngster was innocent at first, but rather that: “It’s hardly humane to have a guy walk to the chair twice… The government failed to perform its job…. It forced [Willie] go through the agony of contemplating death without finishing it… My few detractors will soon be forgotten, but the ideals at stake in this case of freedom from fear of harsh and unusual punishment, fair process, and double jeopardy will endure as long as the American flag flies over this continent.”
However, when he learned more about the case, he began to have second thoughts about Francis’ culpability, as he discovered that he was not initially detained for the murder of Thomas, but rather for fake drug charges and other unrelated reasons miles away from the crime scene.
According to accounts, Francis was visiting one of his sisters in Port Arthur when he was arrested on suspicion of being a drug dealer’s accomplice. The police began questioning Francis about the murder of Thomas when they allegedly discovered the slain pharmacist’s wallet and identification card in his possession after they were unable to connect him to the drug dealer.
They reportedly pressed him and obtained a signed confession from Francis for the murder within minutes, with a second confession the next day, despite the fact that they had no legal assistance during the interrogation.
According to reports, the gun used in the murder was not fingerprinted, and the bullets found in Thomas’ body did not match those from the gun. Furthermore, the gun and bullets were lost in transit to the FBI for processing prior to the trial. One of Thomas’ neighbors claimed to have seen a car’s headlights in his driveway the night of his death. Francis was unable to drive, yet none of this was taken into account when he was sentenced to death.
With these facts in mind, DeBlanc appeared before the Louisiana Pardons Board on May 31, 1946, but his arguments failed to prevent the poor black adolescent from receiving a new execution date.
With the help of J. Skelly Wright, a marine lawyer in Washington, DeBlanc took the issue to the Supreme Court. But, a day after Francis’ seventeenth birthday, the nine justices decided against him in a 5-4 decision.
After learning that one of Francis’ executioners had been inebriated when putting up the electric chair, DeBlanc made attempts to secure Francis a proper trial. Francis, on the other hand, was denied a second trial. Later, DeBlanc told Francis that he was going to take the issue to the Supreme Court again, but the youngster pleaded him not to because he didn’t want any more stress and said, “I’m ready to die.”
On May 9, 1947, almost a year after the initial attempt at execution, Francis was back in the electric chair — this time properly set up. “Nothing at all,” he said when asked if he had any final comments.
The switch was flipped at 12:05 p.m., and Francis was pronounced dead five minutes later. Later, he was dubbed “the teen who was executed twice.”