A Prisoner Sentenced to Two Deaths A new book revisits an old case about a Louisiana prisoner who was executed by electrocution — twice. In 1946, Louisiana guards attempted to execute 16-year-old Willie Francis but botched it. His legal case ended up before the Supreme Court.
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A Prisoner Sentenced to Two Deaths

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A Prisoner Sentenced to Two Deaths

A Prisoner Sentenced to Two Deaths

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TONY COX, host:

It was just after noon on May 3rd, 1946. Sixteen-year-old Willie Francis sat strapped to Gruesome Gertie, the traveling electric chair that was visiting St. Martinville, Louisiana, that day. Francis had been sentenced to die by an all-white jury for a murder he claimed he did not commit. The executioner threw the switch.

Francis contorted and cried out, but he didn't die. Local officials wanted to send him right back to the chair, but Willie fought his double jeopardy all the way to the United States Supreme Court. He lost. One year and six days later, Willie Francis was strapped down in that chair again, and electrocuted on May 9th, 1947.

Joining me now is Gilbert King. He has written a book called "The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder and the Search for Justice in the American South." Welcome, Gilbert.

Mr. GILBERT KING (Author, "The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder and the Search for Justice in the American South"): Hi, Tony. How are you?

COX: I'm fine, thank you, sir. A few years ago, a documentary on the Francis case came to light. It was called "Willie Francis Must Die Again." Why did you decide to take on the Willie Francis story as well?

Mr. KING: Well, I thought there were some interesting things that never really came up, especially in Willie's trial. His trial was basically a travesty of justice. He had two public defenders who were Cajun. The judge was Cajun. Twelve jurors who were Cajun. These public defenders didn't cross-examine any witnesses and didn't call any of their own witnesses. And when the prosecution rested their case, these gentlemen stood up and said, "We rest our case, too." And so it only took the jury 15 minutes to convict Willie.

So there really wasn't a lot of information in the trial. But one thing I found was a confession that was obtained without an attorney around, and Willie wrote eight mysterious words in that confession that always caught my eye, and I always thought there was something more to this story. He wrote, "It was a secret about me and him." And that never came up in the trial. It never came up in any appeal. It was sort of brushed under in St. Martinville, and nobody wanted to talk about it.

COX: What did it mean?

Mr. KING: Well, it was interesting. The prosecution tried to allege that this was a random stickup. They said that he tried to rob this pharmacist. But really, it wasn't random. It was a crime of passion. These two knew each other. Willie admitted to knowing each other. It was a - they had a relationship. In St. Martinville, Willie worked with him. I found witnesses who said, oh yeah, he hired him. He was working doing yard work. So they definitely knew each other.

And Andrew Thomas was sort of this mysterious bachelor who lived a little bit outside of town. And he was loved by everybody in the community, but he was always rumored to be sort of, you know, one of those guys down south that nobody really knew too much about. And so, obviously, when police asked Willie, you know, why'd you do it Willie? He wrote, "It was a secret about me and him." And he would never discuss it.

COX: Let me ask you about the execution, the two executions. The first failed one and the second one that ultimately was successful and took Willie Francis's life. How did this case change people's views on capital punishment at the time?

Mr. KING: Well, at the time, when the first time Willie survived the chair, there was a - it was a huge headline story. You can imagine in April of 1947, this is a time when Jackie Robinson is breaking into the major leagues, first black to ever play professional baseball, and, yet, I was looking through the headlines - the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, the large headline across the banner was, "Last Chance for Willie." And this is at the same time as Jackie Robinson breaking in.

So this really captured the public's attention. And I think why people looked at it differently was that people may not have had strong feelings one way or the other about the death penalty, but when it came to somebody who woke up in the morning, who went to the electric chair and did their part, and because of two drunken executioners, they didn't die, people thought that's unfair, and that he should not have to go back to the chair. And that's what really captured America's interest.

COX: Is the case important now because of its connection to any current cases or current law?

Mr. KING: Well, it is because they don't really - the Supreme Court does not really have too many decisions about cruel and unusual punishment. The last one was this particular case, the Willie Francis case. Right now, there's a case called Baze v. Reese, and this is to decide whether the drug cocktail in lethal injection is considered cruel and unusual.

So it doesn't come up very often in history, only a handful of times has the Supreme Court heard arguments on this.

COX: You know, in looking at the book, which was fascinating, and the photographs which you were able to get through your research are just mind boggling, and the one that I have in front of me now shows Willie on the way to the executioner's chair. And he's dressed up in nice slacks, because he said he wanted to look nice when he saw the Lord, but what caught me was the expression on this man's face who is going back to the death chamber, and yet, he doesn't look worried, concerned, fearful at all.

Mr. KING: Well, you know, what really struck me about this story is Willie had such remarkable courage, and there's sort of the survival of his spirit. You know, it's a story of humanity in the face of inhumanity. He was the one who was calming his attorneys. He was calming his family. He was ready for death, and he was the only person in the world who knew exactly what it was like to go to the electric chair, because he survived it.

And so I think his dignity and the things he used to say, he was very poetic in his speaking, and even though he described the first trip to the chair as being "plum mis'able," and he had a terrific stutter, but he was still very poetic and a lot of newspapers called attention that here's this calm kid who speaks so beautifully.

COX: Here's my final thing. We have about a minute. The town has been cursed, in a sense, hasn't it? Not because of this, but this is one example of the curse, isn't it?

Mr. KING: Exactly. Strangely enough, St. Martinville had another execution 50 years before Willie's in which an innocent man was hanged in town square. And the last thing he said to the people was, "There's people watching me right now go to my death who know that I'm innocent." And when he fell from the scaffold, they had too much rope, and his feet touched the ground. And what happened was the sheriff dug a hole under his feet until he strangled to death. And the last thing he did was put a curse on St. Martinville, and so a lot of people thought when Willie went to the electric chair and survived, that the town really was cursed.

COX: Gilbert King, I want to thank you very much for coming on and sharing your insights with us. Gilbert King is author of the new book, "The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder and the Search for Justice in the American South." He joined us from NPR's New York City bureau.

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