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Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Death of Willie Francis – Was Justice Served?

     Willie Francis (January 12, 1929 – May 9, 1947) was a black juvenile offender sentenced to death at age 16 by the state of Louisiana in 1945 for the murder of his employer, Andrew Thomas, a Cajun pharmacy owner in St. Martinville. 
     In 1944, Thomas, a pharmacist in St. Martinville, Louisiana, was shot and killed and his murder remained unsolved for nine months until August 1945, when Willie Francis was detained in Texas due to his proximity to an unrelated crime. Police claimed that he was carrying Thomas' wallet in his pocket, though no evidence of this claim was submitted during the trial. 
     Francis initially named several others in connection with the murder, but the police dismissed these claims. A short time later, while under interrogation, Francis who did not have a lawyer present, confessed to Thomas' murder, writing, "It was a secret about me and him." It's not known what Thomas meant but Gilbert King, in his book, The Execution of Willie Francis, alludes to rumors in St. Martinville that Francis was being sexually abused by his employer. 
     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.
     At trial time even though he had written two separate confessions, Francis pleaded not guilty. During his trial, the court-appointed defense attorneys offered no objections, called no witnesses, put up no defense and even though he had no lawyer present when he wrote his confessions, their validity was never questioned. 
     Two days after the trial began, Francis was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by electric chair by twelve white jurors and the judge despite Francis having been underage at 15 at the time of the crime. Blacks could not serve on the jury because only voters could serve and blacks had been disenfranchised at the turn of the century by Louisiana's state constitution. 
     The electric chair is rarely used in the United States, but at the time it was invented, it was considered cutting edge and the best method available to kill someone who had been sentenced to death. However, if you get executed in Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, or Virginia you will get a choice between the electric chair or lethal injection. 
     Death in the electric chair is not pleasant. The actual way in which the electric chair kills someone is not known, but the most likely causes are cardiac arrest and paralysis of the part of the brain that controls respiration. The electric shock interrupts the heart's rhythm so that it just stops beating. Most unintentional deaths by electrocution are attributed to heart arrhythmia. 
     The human heart can be stopped with only 7 seven milliamps of direct electricity for a duration of three seconds. That's the amount of electricity conducted by a AAA battery. The reason why people don't get electrocuted from electric shock is that our skin resists electricity, so a much stronger current is needed to break through. The electric chair delivers six amps of electricity. 
     First off, multiple executions by the electric chair have been botched, meaning the prisoner did not die after the first electric shock. 
     In many of these cases, the prisoner actually caught on fire and still had a heartbeat. Human error was blamed. Human flesh will resist the electrical current passing through the victim and this creates heat, which can cause skin to be severely burned. Some of flesh can completely burn off, which means it has to be scraped off the chair when the prisoner is removed. Witnesses have reported hearing a sound like bacon frying and occasionally people to catch fire.
     It's also messy. Victims involuntarily urinate, defecate and vomit blood. By the way, involuntary bowel release can occur if a person gets a strong enough shock from, say, sticking a knife into an electrical socket. 

     Electrocution can cause the body to swell so much that the eyeballs pop out of the head and sometimes the heat actually causes them to melt. That's why prisoners have their eyes taped shut before they are executed. The skin is so hot that it can blister if touched and the internal organs become so hot that a coroner must wait until the body cools down before they can perform an autopsy. 
     Electricity from an external source affects the muscles so electrocution causes involuntary convulsions, sometimes to the point that dislocations or fractures happen. That's why prisoners are strapped down before being electrocuted. 
     All that's what Willie Francis was about to experience on May 3, 1946 in the portable electric chair, known as "Gruesome Gertie", which was set up by an intoxicated prison guard and inmate from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana. The problem was they didn't set it up properly and when Francis was strapped in and the switch thrown, witnesses heard him screaming from behind the leather hood, "Take it off! Take it off! Let me breathe!" 
     Francis wouldn't die and he was finally released from the electric chair causing the sheriff, E.L. Resweber, to later say, "This boy really got a shock when they turned that machine on." Sounds like a nice guy. 
     After the botched execution, a young lawyer named 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 the murder victim and his decision was greeted with dismay by whites. 
     DeBlanc took Francis' case to the Supreme Court 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 US Supreme Court rejected the appeal. For the record, the Supreme Court was made up of Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson and the Associate Justices were: Hugo Black, Stanley F. Reed, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Frank Murphy, Robert H. Jackson, Wiley B. Rutledge and Harold H. Burton. 
     Willie Francis was returned to the electric chair for a second time 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. 

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