On May 3, 1946, in picturesque St. Martinville, Louisiana, a seventeen year-old black boy was scheduled for execution by electric chair inside of a tiny redbrick jail. Charged with the murder of a local Cajun pharmacist, Willie Francis’s trial had been brief and a guilty verdict was never in doubt. Willie’s appointed lawyers called no witnesses, presented no evidence and had not filed a single appeal once he was sentenced to die by electrocution.
As the noontide church bells began to toll, a crowd of townspeople gathered in the streets surrounding the jailhouse. Inside, the executioners – still smelling of liquor after spending a late night in the local taverns -- strapped Willie into the electric chair. Three hundred pounds of oak and metal, the chair had been dubbed “Gruesome Gertie.” At 12:08 PM, the executioners flipped the switch. Willie screamed and writhed under his restraints. The chair shuddered and slid across the floor. But Willie Francis did not die.
Having miraculously survived, Willie was soon informed that the State would try to kill him again in six days. Letters and telegrams began pouring into St. Martinville from across the country—spurred on by editorials and radio commentaries. Americans of all colors and classes were transfixed by the fate of this young man. Had he been saved from death by the hand of the Almighty? Could Louisiana really electrocute someone twice? Was the boy innocent—the victim of secrets and lies told by powerful whites in the cursed town of St. Martinville? Into the fray stepped a young Cajun lawyer just returned from WWII, Bertrand DeBlanc. After a visit from Willie’s shaken but resolute father, DeBlanc resolved to take on Willie’s case—in the face of overwhelming local resistance. Despite the fact that the murdered pharmacist was one of DeBlanc’s best friends, and the knowledge that his own family was rooted in white supremacy, DeBlanc would battle those on both sides of the color line in the hope of saving Willie Francis from an inhuman fate. He argued the case from the Bayou all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where it caused a rift between the Justices. Felix Frankfurter, tortured by his vote to allow Willie to face the electric chair a second time, would make an unprecedented and covert last-ditch effort to overturn his own decision and save the life of Willie Francis.
An extraordinary and troubling story of a brutal crime, community vengeance, legal heroism, and constitutional law, The Execution of Willie Francis offers a historical examination of race and capital punishment – issues that remain all too timely today.
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