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Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Juvenile (16) - The first known incident of a failed execution by electrocution in the United States
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: December 1944
Date of arrest: August 1945
Date of birth: January 12, 1929
Victim profile: Andrew Thomas, a drugstore owner who employed him
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: St. Martinville, St. Martin Parish, Louisiana, USA
Status: Failed execution by electrocution on May 3, 1946. Executed by electrocution on May 9, 1947
photo gallery

Supreme Court of the United States


francis v. resweber


Willie Francis (c. 1930 – May 9, 1947) was a 17 year old African American sentenced to death by electrocution by the state of Louisiana in 1946 for murdering Andrew Thomas, a drugstore owner who employed him. His case is notable as being the first known incident of a failed execution by electrocution in the United States.

The murder remained unsolved for nine months, until August 1945 when Francis was detained due to his proximity to an unrelated crime. In his pocket was Andrew Thomas' wallet.

Francis named several others in connection with the murder, but the police were never able to find them. A short time later, Francis directed the police to where he'd disposed of the holster used to carry the murder weapon.

Despite two separate written confessions, Francis pleaded not guilty. Nevertheless, eight days after the trial began, Willie Francis stood convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

At his execution, the electric chair failed to kill Willie Francis, who reportedly shrieked "Stop it! Let me breathe!" as the lethal surge of electricity was being applied. It turned out that the portable electric chair had been improperly set up by an intoxicated trustee.

After the botched execution, Francis appealed to the Supreme Court in Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459 (1947), citing various violations of his Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. These included violations of equal protection, double jeopardy, and cruel and unusual punishment. In a 5-4 decision the appeal was rejected. The dissenting opinion asked just how many attempted executions it took before it became cruel and unusual.

Subsequently, Willie Francis was executed on May 9, 1947.


Willie Francis (January 12, 1929 May 9, 1947) is best known for being the first recipient of a failed execution by electrocution in the United States.

He was an African American sentenced to death by electrocution by the state of Louisiana in 1945 (at age 16) for murdering Andrew Thomas, a Cajun drugstore owner in St. Martinville who had once employed him.

Arrest and trial

Andrew Thomas' murder remained unsolved for nine months, until August 1945 when Francis was detained in Texas due to his proximity to an unrelated crime. Police claimed he was carrying the wallet of Andrew Thomas in his pocket.

Francis initially named several others in connection with the murder, but the police dismissed these claims. A short time later, Francis, under interrogation, confessed to Thomas' murder, writing, "It was a secret about me and him." The actual meaning of his statement is still uncertain, but author Gilbert King, in his book, "The Execution of Willie Francis," alludes to rumors in St. Martinville of sexual abuse by the pharmacist. Francis later directed the police to where he'd disposed of the holster used to carry the murder weapon. The gun used to kill Thomas was also found near the crime scene and belonged to a deputy sheriff in St. Martinville who had once threatened to kill Thomas. It, along with the bullets, disappeared from evidence just before the trial.

Despite two separate written confessions, Francis pleaded not guilty. During the trial of Willie Francis, the court-appointed defense attorneys offered no objections, called no witnesses and put up no defense. The validity of the confessions was not questioned by the defense. Nevertheless, just two days after the trial began, Willie Francis stood convicted of murder and was sentenced to death by twelve jurors and the judge.

Execution, appeal, and second execution

On May 3, 1946, the electric chair failed to kill Willie Francis. Witnesses reported hearing the teenager scream from behind the leather hood, "Take it off! Take it off! Let me breathe!" as the supposedly lethal surge of electricity was being applied.

Another report states that he called out, "I'm n-not dying!" It turned out that the portable electric chair known as "Gruesome Gertie" had been improperly set up by an intoxicated prison guard and inmate from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The sheriff, E.L. Resweber, was later quoted as saying: "This boy really got a shock when they turned that machine on."

After the botched execution, a young lawyer, Bertrand DeBlanc, who was best friends with the victim, decided to take Francis's case, much to the dismay of the small Cajun town. He appealed to the Supreme Court in Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459 (1947), 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 preliminary vote was in Francis' favor. A court clerk mistakenly informed Francis' legal team he had won his appeal. In fact, in a 5-4 decision, the appeal was rejected. The dissenting opinion asked just how many attempted executions it took before it became cruel and unusual punishment. Behind the scenes, Justice Felix Frankfurter, who cast the deciding vote to re-execute Francis, asked his old college roommate to secretly petition the Governor of Louisiana for a commutation, which failed.

Subsequently, Willie Francis was executed at 12:05pm (CST) on May 9, 1947.


Willie Francis was the subject of a 2006 documentary titled "Willie Francis Must Die Again," written and directed by filmmaker Allan Durand. The film, narrated by actor Danny Glover, chronicles the murder of a local pharmacist in St. Martinville Louisiana named Andrew Thomas, the arrest of 16 year old Willie Francis, as well as the unprecedented court battle that followed. The project, produced by regional film director/producer Glen Pitre, includes first hand accounts of Francis' original trial, interviews with Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking", Gilbert King, author of "The Execution of Willie Francis," and cultural perspective provided by director Allan Durand.



The Two Deaths of Willie Francis

By Rebecca Agule - Herald Record

November 176, 2006

The discomfort caused by a thermostat set much too high created an oddly appropriate backdrop for students attending the American Constitution Society's Thursday, November 9, screening of director Allen Durand's documentary, "Willie Francis Must Die Again." The intimate atmosphere allowed attendees to share a close moment with the director in way not possible in a more formal setting.

Raised in St. Martinville, a French Catholic town in southern Cajun Louisiana, Durand produced and directed the film, which centers on his town's most famous execution. Or perhaps more properly put, executions. Actor Danny Glover narrated the unique and haunting story of young Willie Francis, who survived the electric chair to which he was sentenced in 1946, before being strapped in again and succumbing to it in 1947.

Shot mostly as a combination of black and white stills and first person interviews, with music evocative of the time and the region, the film recounts the initial crime, the trial, the first botched execution, an appeal to the United States Supreme Court and the eventual successful execution.

Sister Helen Prejean, best known for her book Dead Man Walking, speaks throughout the film, offering her own insight on the death penalty and certain failings of the United States adversarial system.

"We play God," Prejean said. "We go behind closed doors and decide if a fellow human being lives or dies."

Durand utilized quotes from renowned philosophers to emphasize the cruel nature of the ordeal and its consequences. Sir Roger L'Estrange is quoted as saying, "The greatest of all injustice is that which goes under the name of law."

One night in 1945, St. Martinville pharmacist, Andrew Thomas, was murdered in his bed, and when the police failed to make an arrest or even find real leads, sixteen year-old Francis was charged with the crime. After arresting Francis on unrelated and false drug charges, the police claimed to extract from him a confession in the Thomas murder. This confession constituted the bulk of the prosecution's case in a trial that lasted just over a day.

Francis' defense was anything but effective. Over the course of the short trial, his court-appointed defense attorney changed Francis' plea from not-guilty to guilty without his consent, did not make an opening statement, called not a single witness, raised no objections, and mounted nothing that could be termed a defense. An all-white, all-male jury took just fifteen minutes to convict Francis and sentenced him to death by electrocution. All pertinent deadlines passed without a single appeal being filed on Francis's behalf.

Following the first failed execution, Francis' father reached out to Louisiana attorney Bertrand DeBlanc, who in turn contacted Washington lawyer, J. Skelly Wright. Together to two men brought the case before the United States Supreme Court, where Wright argued before the bench. Wright, filmmaker Durand's great uncle, also served as the director's personal connection to the case.

On November 8, 1946, Wright presented the case, mostly based on the 8th Amendment. Following much internal debate and vote-changing, the court voted 5-4 to allow the second execution.

But much like Francis himself, the Supreme Court's interest in the case would not die easily. After casting the deciding fifth vote, a torn Justice Felix Frankfurter began a behind-the-scenes campaign of his own to commute Francis' sentence to life in prison. In a highly unorthodox display of extrajudicial involvement, Justice Frankfurter contacted friends in the Louisiana legal community and involved himself well beyond the cloaks of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court itself encouraged Francis to bring his case again, but by that point, exhausted from emotion and tired of the pain he saw in his family as they awaited his fate, Francis refused, instead accepting his coming death, right or wrong. And on May 9, 1947, the initial sentence, handed down long before, was carried out.

Time allowed the violent truth to rise to the top. First it was revealed that the two men charged with operating the electric chair for the first execution had been intoxicated both during the assembly and the procedure. Then it slowly began to come out that, not only had Francis been innocent, but many people had information as to the identity of the real murderers. But these revelations came much too late to save the young man.

The close of the film covers the changed lives of those connected to the case. Skelly Wright became an appeals court judge of great renown, well recognized for his belief that, "the ultimate test is goodness." After serving as a District Attorney, DeBlanc remained so impacted by the Francis case that he could not continue as a prosecutor, instead becoming the head of the indigent defendant's office, a career move rarely seen before or after.

Following the screening, Durand answered all questions posed him. In a low, rolling southern accent, he explained his cinematic decisions, as well as his influences.

Durand further provided historical context for the film, describing the extreme isolation of southern Louisiana in the mid-20th century. "Prior to the Civil Rights movement on the 1960's, there wasn't an opportunity for a minority to really do anything. They were totally powerless."

When asked about the local attitude at the time, the director candidly quoted his own father, "If you were black and they wanted you to confess, you confessed."

The documentary film community recognized the potency of Durand's piece. It won Best Documentary at the 2006 Memphis International Film Festival, as well as Best Social Justice Documentary at the 2006 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.



Cruel and Unusual History

By Gilbert King - The New York Times

April 23, 2008

THE Supreme Court concluded last week, in a 7-2 ruling, that Kentucky’s three-drug method of execution by lethal injection does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In his plurality opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts cited a Supreme Court principle from a ruling in 1890 that defines cruelty as limited to punishments that “involve torture or a lingering death.”

But the court was wrong in the 19th century, an error that has infected its jurisprudence for more than 100 years. In this nation’s landmark capital punishment cases, the resultant executions were anything but free from torture and prolonged deaths.

The first of those landmark cases, the 1879 case of Wilkerson v. Utah, was cited by Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion in the Kentucky case. The court “had no difficulty concluding that death by firing squad” did not amount to cruel and unusual punishment, Justice Thomas wrote.

Wallace Wilkerson might have begged to differ. Once the Supreme Court affirmed Utah’s right to eradicate him by rifle, Wilkerson was let into a jailyard where he declined to be blindfolded. A sheriff gave the command to fire and Wilkerson braced for the barrage. He moved just enough for the bullets to strike his arm and torso but not his heart.

“My God!” Wilkerson shrieked. “My God! They have missed!” More than 27 minutes passed as Wilkerson bled to death in front of astonished witnesses and a helpless doctor.

Just 11 years later, the Supreme Court heard the case of William Kemmler, who had been sentenced to death by electric chair in New York. The court, in affirming the state’s right to execute Kemmler, ruled that electrocution reduced substantial risks of pain or “a lingering death” when compared to executions by hanging. Kemmler, had he lived through the ensuing execution (and he nearly did), might too have disagreed.

After a thousand volts of current struck Kemmler on Aug. 6, 1890, the smell of burnt flesh permeated the room. He was still breathing. Saliva dripped from his mouth and down his beard as he gasped for air. Nauseated witnesses and a tearful sheriff fled the room as Kemmler’s coat burst into flames.

Another surge was applied, but minutes passed as the current built to a lethal voltage. Some witnesses thought Kemmler was about to regain consciousness, but eight long minutes later, he was pronounced dead.

Perhaps the most egregious case came to the court more than 50 years later. “Lucky” Willie Francis, as the press called him, was a stuttering 17-year-old from St. Martinville, La. In 1946, he walked away from the electric chair known as “Gruesome Gertie” when two executioners (an inmate and a guard) from the state penitentiary at Angola botched the wiring of the chair.

When the switch was thrown, Francis strained against the straps and began rocking and sliding in the chair, pleading with the sheriff and the executioners to halt the proceedings. “I am n-n-not dying!” he screamed. Gov. Jimmie Davis ordered Francis returned to the chair six days later.

Francis’ lawyers obtained a stay, and the case reached the Supreme Court. Justice Felix Frankfurter defined the teenager’s ordeal as an “innocent misadventure.” In the decision, Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, the court held that “accidents happen for which no man is to blame,” and that such “an accident, with no suggestion of malevolence” did not violate the Constitution.

Fewer than 24 hours before Francis’ second scheduled execution, his lawyers tried to bring the case before the Supreme Court again. They had obtained affidavits from witnesses stating that the two executioners from Angola were, as one of the witnesses put it, “so drunk it would have been impossible for them to have known what they were doing.” Although the court rejected this last-minute appeal, it noted the “grave nature of the new allegations” and encouraged the lawyers to pursue the matter in state court first, as required by law.

Willie Francis was executed the next morning. Because his case never made it back to the Supreme Court, the ruling lingers, influencing the decisions of today’s justices. In his plurality opinion last week, Chief Justice Roberts called Louisiana’s first attempt at executing Francis an “isolated mishap” that “while regrettable, does not suggest cruelty.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing separately, also mentioned the Francis case: “No one suggested that Louisiana was required to implement additional safeguards or alternative procedures in order to reduce the risk of a second malfunction.” In fact, Louisiana did just that. Two weeks after the botched execution of Willie Francis, its Legislature required that the operator of the electric chair “shall be a competent electrician who shall not have been previously convicted of a felony.” This law would have prohibited both executioners from participating in Francis’ failed execution.

The court’s majority opinion in the Willie Francis case acknowledged, “The traditional humanity of modern Anglo-American law forbids the infliction of unnecessary pain in the execution of the death sentence.” Yet the Supreme Court continues to flout that standard.

In its ruling last week, the court once more ignored the consequences of its rulings for men like Wallace Wilkerson, William Kemmler and Willie Francis. The justices cited and applied Wilkerson’s and Kemmler’s cases as if their executions went off without a hitch.

And 60 years after two drunken executioners disregarded the tortured screams of a teenage boy named Willie Francis, the Supreme Court continues to do so.

Gilbert King is the author of “The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder and the Search for Justice in the American South.”


He cheated the chair

By David J. Krajicek -

Monday, April 28th 2008

The electrocution was not going well.

Nothing happened when the executioner threw the power switch, so he toggled it back and forth until the electric chair - Gruesome Gertie, she was called - began to buck and skitter across the floor, taking her intended victim for a little ride.

Officials gathered inside the petite parish jail in St. Martinville, La., in the heart of Cajun country, began to eye one another nervously.

From beneath the death hood came the voice of the condemned murderer, a black teenager named Willie Francis.

"Take this off," Francis said. "I can't breathe."

Someone in the room replied, "You're not supposed to breathe."

But he insisted, "I am not dying."

He was correct.

After several minutes, someone mercifully called off the debacle.

Francis was helped out of the chair. His heart beat wildly, but he was very much alive.

Francis told reporters, "God fooled with the electric chair."

The date was May 3, 1946, and it was said to be the first time in the contraption's 56-year history that an electric chair had failed to do its job.

But God probably had nothing to do with it.

Musical chair

During World War II, the state of Louisiana decided that it would be more efficient to take the electric chair to the condemned rather than vice versa.

They ordered the construction of a "portable" chair, a 300-pound monstrosity of oak, leather and wiring that was hauled on a truck from one jail to another, as needed.

During the chair's initial outings, state prison Warden Dennis Bazer was on hand to oversee its proper usage. The chair was carefully set up and measured for sufficiently deadly voltage.

But Bazer stayed home when it come time to fry Willie Francis.

He sent two men with the chair: Capt. Edward Foster, a prison officer, and Vincent Vinezia, an Angola inmate with trustee status.

Foster and Vinezia spent most of their two days in St. Martinville behind tavern doors. On execution day, the men reeked of whisky as they set up the chair, which was attached by cables to electricity generators outside the jail.

The execution failed because they had improperly grounded the current, among many other errors.

No one in Louisiana government was particularly vexed. The state announced that it would simply try to kill Francis again.

A conscientious Cajun lawyer, Bertrand DeBlanc, took up his case as a possible violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

On May 31, the state Board of Pardons considered whether Francis should be spared a second electrocution and sent to prison for life instead.



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