Revisiting the Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder and the Search for Justice

Reviewed: The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder and the Search for Justice in the American South
by Gilbert King Basic Civitas Books, 2008, $26 cloth, 324 pages

They called the Louisiana electric chair Gruesome Gertie and in her years of service to the state, no case was more notorious than that of long-forgotten Willie Francis. A 16-year-old teen at the time of his 1945 arrest, Francis was barely literate, the youngest of 13 children in a desperately poor, devoutly Roman Catholic, African American family.

The story begins in November, 1944 with the murder of 53- year-old Andrew Thomas, the well-liked owner of Thomas's Drug Store in the pastoral Cajun town of St. Martinville, Louisiana. Thomas, who was white, was hit by five shots fired at close range. Theories of who might have killed him were abundant. The lifelong bachelor and purported Don Juan was suspected of numerous romantic liaisons with married women, but after a nine-month investigation, all leads had run cold.

That changed in August 3, 1945 when police in Port Arthur, Texas, 150 miles from St. Martinville, happened upon Willie Francis who was there visiting his sister. Francis was carrying a large valise and the cops, on the lookout for drug traffickers, took Francis into custody for questioning.

In short order, Francis convinced his interrogators that he was not a narcotics dealer. Nevertheless, the cops noted that he stuttered -- a mannerism they determined indicated guilt -- and proceeded to ask him about his involvement in numerous robberies and assaults in the Port Arthur area.

King reports that police accounts reveal a startling -- maybe even unbelievable -- turn of events. According to Port Arthur Chief of Police Claude W. Goldsmith, "who did not keep any notes or records of the interrogation, Willie confessed to the St. Martinville murder [of Thomas] in a matter of minutes." What's more, when they inspected Francis' wallet they found an ID bearing the name of Andrew Thomas.

Francis' written statement, replete with spelling errors, admits that he stole a .38 pistol for the planned murder. His statement further concedes that he took Thomas' wallet, containing $4, along with a gold watch which he later pawned. No counsel was present at the time of this alleged confession.

A month later Francis was indicted by a grand jury and in no-time flat a trial was scheduled. A jury of twelve white men -- clearly not Francis' peers -- was selected. As testimony unfolded the jurors learned that there was no forensic evidence linking Francis to the crime. "Also missing," King writes, "were the murder weapon and bullets that had been recovered from the scene." Both had been lost in transit to the FBI Crime Lab. Worse, King writes, "no fingerprints had been lifted from the gun. Without the alleged murder weapon or the wrist watch as evidence, the bulk of the District Attorney's case rested exclusively on confessions obtained by police while the teenaged Willie Francis was in custody and without legal counsel." Later, attorneys and journalists reviewing the trial transcript dubbed the proceedings "a farce and travesty."

Nonetheless, Francis was found guilty and sentenced to die in Gruesome Gertie.

His executioners were Angola Prison captain Ephie Foster and prisoner Vincent Venezia. Both men were charged with transporting the contraption to St. Martinville and insuring Francis' death by electrocution. They had done this before and ostensibly knew how to proceed. Indeed, they were so relaxed that they opted for a night of serious drinking in the hours immediately before the scheduled execution.

Eyewitnesses report that the pair were visibly drunk when they arrived at the jail the following morning. Still, they did the state's bidding and strapped Francis into the chair before applying the current.

Then something surprising happened -- despite being zapped by electricity, Francis did not die. Spectators were horrified, then relieved to learn that the mechanical malfunction would be corrected and a second execution ordered.

What happened next can only be described as a whirlwind. Attorney Bertrand DeBlanc, a deeply religious white man just returned from serving in World War II, agreed to take Francis' case -- pro-bono. During the next year-and-a-half, he would share legal work with the NAACP and with another white attorneylater- judge named J. Skully Wright.

The more DeBlanc learned about Francis' case, the angrier he became. At the same time he never challenged Francis' guilt -- Francis himself never proclaimed his innocence or took issue with his arrest or conviction -- but instead zeroed in on proving that a second execution would constitute cruel and unusual punishment and amount to double jeopardy.

The case bounced from court to court and eventually wound up in D.C. where the U.S. Supreme Court heard DeBlanc's argument. King's rendering of the proceedings is fascinating. "Sixty years later," he begins, "alleged violations of double jeopardy, cruel and unusual punishment, and due process would constitute unquestionably valid legal strategies for attorneys. But not in 1946. Not once, not twice, but many times the U.S. Supreme Court had held that the first ten amendments to the Constitution, rights citizens decades later would take for granted, simply did not exist for litigants in a case originating at the state level -- cases like Willie's. In other words, one's right not to be tried twice for the same crime could only be invoked if one was being tried in a federal court. The Supreme Court had ruled that in a state court a man [sic] could be tried twice for the same murder. Furthermore, in 1908, the Supreme Court held that the Fifth Amendment -- the right regarding self-incrimination -- did not apply to state court trials."

DeBlanc, Wright and the NAACP pushed forward anyway, arguing that the Bill of Rights should apply to the states. They also argued that a second encounter with Gruesome Gertie would be cruel, unusual and patently illegal.

The Court disagreed. In a five-to-four decision, issued one day after Francis turned 18, the Justices opted to send him back to the chair. Despite seething and eloquent dissents, the Court refused to save Willie Francis' life.

His attorneys were despondent and tried to push the Justices to reconsider; they simultaneously petitioned Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis to commute Francis' sentence to life imprisonment. In a bizarre turn, Justice Felix Frankfurter, who voted with the Court majority, petitioned Davis on Francis' behalf.

Their efforts failed. On May 9, 1947, Francis was executed, making him the 24th state resident killed by Gruesome Gertie.

To this day no one knows what really happened between Francis and Thomas. Years later, rumors that Thomas was gay -- and that his friendships with married women never strayed beyond the platonic -- began to circulate. Francis' one-time assertion -- his enigmatic explanation of what had transpired, "it was a secret about me and him" -- was never probed. Whether this was because of squeamishness, incompetence, or negligence is unknown.

King's exploration of Willie Francis' tragic life and the myriad efforts to save him is riveting. Well-researched and fast-paced, Francis' poignant story showcases the collision between social justice activists and a legal system hell-bent on maintaining the status quo. But it does more than this, reminding us of the ripples beneath the surface of most social change efforts. In this case, even though DeBlanc and colleagues could not save Francis, their courage, fortitude, and resistance set other acts of resistance into motion. Indeed, their tireless advocacy emboldened others and helped catapult racial injustice and the inhumanity of killing youthful offenders into public consciousness.

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