Today I found out about a 16 year old sentenced to death who had to have that sentence carried out twice.
The teenager was Willie Francis, the youngest of 13 children in a poor black family living in Louisiana. Francis supposedly murdered 53 year old pharmacist Andrew Thomas in St. Martinville, Louisiana in 1944. Thomas was found shot five times at close range just outside of his home.
Unfortunately for Francis, he had to go through the ordeal of being strapped to the electric chair, “Gruesome Gertie”, and having it switched on both times, with a little over a year separating the instances.
The first time he found himself in the chair on May 3, 1946, it was improperly setup as the two in charge of setting it up, Captain Ephie Foster and an inmate who was also an electrician, Vincent Venezia, were drunk at the time. When the switch was flipped to kill the boy, rather than this happening, he simply started jerking around violently in the chair.
Francis described it this way,
I wanted to say good-bye, too, (Captain Foster had cheerfully said, “goodbye Willie”, before throwing the switch) but I was so scared I couldn’t talk. My hands were closed tightly. Then—I could almost hear it coming.
The best way I can describe it is: Whamm! Zst! It felt like a hundred and a thousand needles and pins were pricking in me all over and my left leg felt like somebody was cutting it with a razor blade.
I could feel my arms jumping at my sides and I guess my whole body must have jumped straight out. I couldn’t stop the jumping. If that was tickling it was sure a funny kind (He had been told it would tickle and then he’d die). I thought for a minute I was going to knock the chair over. Then I was all right. I thought I was dead
Then they did it again! The same feeling all over. I heard a voice say, “‘Give me some more juice down there!’” And in a little while somebody yelled, ‘”I’m giving you all I got now!”
I think I must have hollered for them to stop. They say I said, “Take it off! Take it off!’” I know that was certainly what I wanted them to do—turn it off
Finally, when it was clear the electric chair wasn’t going to kill him, they removed Francis from it and took him for examination by the witnessing coroner Dr. Youngue. Upon being removed, one of the drunk executioners, Captain Foster, yelled at him, “I missed you this time, but I’ll get you next week if I have to use an iron bar!”
Now you might think they’d simply fix the problem with the chair and carry out his execution again straight away, as Foster had suggested. Indeed, this was what was initially planned. The problem was that Francis’ father, Frederick Francis, unhappy with the legal representation his son had received in his trial, approached a lawyer, one Bertrand de Blanc (who had been a good friend of Andrew Thomas before Francis had supposedly murdered him).
Frederick Francis had no money to pay de Blanc, but offered to work for him as a form of payment, something de Blanc politely refused. In the end, he did get some vegetables from Frederick Francis’ garden for his over year long fight for Francis’ life. (De Blanc was also later helped by attorneys from the NAACP and a judge J. Skully Wright.)
When de Blanc took on the case, he initially did so not because he thought Francis was innocent, but because he felt “It’s not humane to make a man go to the chair twice… The state fell down on its job…. It made [Willie] suffer the torture of facing death without completing it… My few critics will soon be dead and buried but the principles involved in this case of freedom from fear of cruel and unusual punishment and that of due process and double jeopardy will live as long as the American flag waves on this continent.”
De Blanc’s views on Francis’ guilt soon changed as he began looking into the case in detail and was appalled by what he found.
Willie Francis was not initially arrested for the murder of Andrew Thomas. Rather, the police arrested him 150 miles away from where the murder took place for unrelated reasons. Francis was traveling, visiting one of his sisters. The police were looking for drug traffickers and spotted Francis walking along with a suitcase, so arrested him and subsequently interrogated him.
It quickly became clear that Francis was not a drug trafficker, but because Francis was stuttering during his interrogation (in actuality, he simply was someone who stuttered when he spoke), they decided he must be guilty of something (black man who stuttered and had a suitcase in the South in the 1940s; mother of god, somebody call in the firing squad! …)
Despite the fact that he had no legal representation at any point during the interrogation and the police quite literally had nothing on him, they pressed him and supposedly within minutes he confessed to the murder of Andrew Thomas, as well as confessed to assaulting and robbing a man in Port Arthur, where Francis had just arrived at… so, ummm. hmmm.
Francis then wrote and signed the following confession concerning his murder of Andrew Thomas:
I Willie Francis now 16 years old I stole the gun from Mr. Ogise (the deputy “August” Fuselier) at St. Martinville La. and kill Andrew Thomas November 9, 1944 or about the time at St. Martinville La it was a secret about me and him. I took a black purse with card in it four dollars in it. I all so took a watch on him and sell it in new Iberia La. That all I am said I throw gun away .38 Pistol
This first statement also included typed bits from the police stating that they had not coerced Francis into confessing.
The next day, Francis wrote a second confession while now in the custody of Sheriff Resweber of St. Martinville (this one not including any bit about not being coerced, but fixing the date to be the correct morning of the murder and adding concrete details to more precisely fit the crime, though still leaving a lot of unanswered questions.):
Yes Willie Francis confess that he kill Andrew Thomas on November 8, 1944. I went to his house about 11:30 PM. I hide backing his garage about a half hour. When he came out the garage I shot him five times. That all I remember. Sinarely Willie Francis
Francis also later stated that there were two others involved in the murder, but then retracted this and said he had done it alone.
Alright, case closed, he was guilty right? I mean, he confessed didn’t he? Besides the fact that it’s not at all unheard of for people to confess to just about anything while being interrogated, let alone a teenager being the one being coerced, and the fact that at the time police on the whole frequently were quite brutal during interrogations of minorities, there are a number of fishy things about the supposed evidence against him:
- The gun that Francis supposedly used to murder Thomas belonged to the Sheriff’s deputy.
- The gun was “lost” before the trial as were the recovered bullets. Suspiciously, they were “lost” while in transit to the FBI Crime Lab where they were going to be analyzed.
- They didn’t bother to check the gun for finger prints or even to check that the bullets found in Thomas’ body came from the gun that was eventually “lost” (nor even that the caliber bullets found could be fired by the particular gun).
- The deputy whose gun was “stolen” supposedly reported it missing two months before the murder. The problem is there is no record of him reporting it stolen so we have to just go on the word of the deputy and the word of the district attorney who said he “remembered” the deputy mentioning it had been stolen.
- The deputy once threatened to kill Andrew Thomas as he was convinced that Thomas was attempting to have an affair with the his wife, among other women in the town. (Before the arrest of Francis, most in the town just assumed that an angry boyfriend or husband had murdered Thomas as Thomas frequently spent time with many women of the town in their homes when their husbands weren’t around. More on this in the Bonus Facts below.)
- The pocket watch that Francis supposedly stole from Thomas after the murder and then sold at a jewelers was never found and the owner of Rivere’s Jewelry Store, when Francis and the police showed up, said he didn’t remember any such transaction. His records did show he had purchased a watch from someone for $5 around the appropriate time, whether it was the watch in question or not, but he stated he had never seen Francis before. He was never asked to testify about the watch Francis supposedly stole.
- When Thomas’ neighbors, Alvin and Ida Van Brocklin heard gunshots, Ida looked out the window and saw a car with the lights on in the driveway outside of Thomas’ house after the gunshots. The car was not there in the morning when the body was found. Being a poor black teen, Francis never learned to drive a car, nor had access to one. (This evidence didn’t come out until after the first execution attempt.)
- Thomas was hit with five shots from a six shooter, including two in the side, two in the back, and one in the head, all in rapid fire according to the Brocklins. This would seem to indicate the shooter was an excellent marksmen, or at least well familiar with the particular weapon used, something that it is unlikely Francis was, having never owned or shot a gun before supposedly stealing the deputy’s gun.
So how did Francis get convicted given the lack of evidence, other than his confession? First, the two public defenders assigned to him, James Randlett Parkerson and Otto J. Mestayer, tried to get the judge to throw out Francis’ “not guilty” plea and submit one of “guilty”, which would have guaranteed the death penalty (under Louisiana state law at the time anyone who plead guilty of murder automatically got the death penalty).
They did not bother to try to get a change in venue, even though the arrest of Francis had been widely talked about in the town for over a month, with many thinking Francis was guilty while others were convinced he was being set up. (Francis was well known around town, working odd jobs for numerous people, and many of those who knew him described him as having a very kind and gentle disposition, with his only major flaw being he was a bit of a prankster.)
Next, Francis’ lawyers waived their right to an opening statement at the beginning of the trial. They further did not raise one single objection during the brief trial in which the prosecutors argued it had been a simple robbery (which made no sense in that Francis knew Thomas quite well, working for him at odd jobs off and on, and apparently got along well with him).
When the prosecutors rested, Francis’ lawyers stood up and said they “had no evidence to offer on behalf of the accused” and rested their case, rather than actually doing anything to defend their client, which any even half way competent attorney could have done easily given the complete lack of evidence against Francis. The one thing they did do, according to the trial minutes, was make a few closing remarks, though these remarks were not recorded.
After that, it was just a matter of the 12 white jurors, many of which had known and liked Andrew Thomas, finding Francis guilty and sentencing him to death.
So now fast forward back to after the first execution attempt. De Blanc did not initially try to argue the results of Francis’ trial or anything about how it was conducted, which probably would have been a dead end at the time, at least in terms of getting Francis’ second execution date moved back in time. Rather, he argued that Francis’ sentence had already been carried out and it would constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment to carry it out a second time. Because this did not contest Francis’ guilt or bring up race or anything of the sort, de Blanc was able to get a stay on execution in the few days he had to work with before the set execution date.
Over the next year, he appealed this argument all the way up to the Supreme Court, during which time the story became a national sensation with the general public mostly seeming to support letting Francis off or at least simply giving him a life sentence, rather than executing him again, either because they felt it was inhumane to make a person go through an execution twice, or because they believed the boy innocent.
Initially the Supreme Court was heavily against de Blanc’s argument, 7-2, but one of the Justices, Harold Burton, managed to convince two others, Justice Frank Murphy and Justice William O. Douglas, to change their vote, stating
How many deliberate and intentional reapplications of electric current does it take to produce a cruel, unusual and unconstitutional punishment? If five attempts would be ‘cruel and unusual,’ it would be difficult to draw the line between two, three, four and five.
The vote now stood 5-4 against Francis, but just barely in that one of the Justices, Felix Frankfurter, from a moral standpoint sided with Francis, but from a legal perspective, couldn’t bring himself to vote in his favor. Frankfurter wrote to Burton of his decision stating, “I am sorry that I cannot go with you, but I am weeping no tears that you are expressing a dissent.” So in the end, they ruled against Francis 5-4, the day after his 18th birthday.
However, Justice Frankfurter was so distraught over the issue that despite him ruling against Francis, he enlisted the aid of a friend in Louisiana who was also an attorney on friendly terms with the Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis, to try to convince the governor to commute Francis’ sentence to life imprisonment. This attempt failed.
While many lawyers would have conceded defeat after losing their case in front of the Supreme Court, de Blanc “had not yet begun to fight”. He started again, this time arguing that the trial had been a sham and that new evidence had been unearthed, including the above stated bit that an eye witness had seen a car with the lights on outside of the pharmacist’s house directly after the shots were fired. With this, he hoped to get Francis a new trial, this time featuring an actual defense.
The problem was that the date of the new execution had already been set and, as he suspected he would when he chose the alternative argument above which he took to the Supreme Court, de Blanc was having trouble getting that date moved back so he could go through the necessary legal motions to get a new trial.
In the end, Francis himself, who had been telling de Blanc he didn’t want a second trial, finally convinced him to drop the matter two hours before the scheduled execution as he stated he didn’t want to cause his mother, Louise Francis, any more stress (she was ill at the time over the matter).
De Blanc honored his request and on May 9, 1947, Francis was again strapped to Gruesome Gertie, this time setup correctly. After being asked if he had any last words, he replied, “nothing at all” and they flipped the switch making him the 24th person to die sitting on that horrid chair.
It should be noted here despite the mountain of questionable events that led up to Francis’ conviction, there is a slight possibility that Francis did kill Thomas (with emphasis on “slight”). One of Thomas ID’s was supposedly found in Francis’ wallet when he was initially interrogated and the wallet itself was said to have belonged to Thomas. Although, it seems fishy that Francis would be carrying that around for several months after supposedly murdering Thomas. The one bit of evidence that could have connected him to the crime. It seems likely that this evidence could have easily been planted or simply made up, as no such physical evidence was ever presented.
Francis also supposedly later lead police to where he’d thrown the gun away a few blocks from where Thomas’ house was. There was no gun there at the time, but a couple months before this, some unknown citizen had supposedly found a gun in that exact spot and some other unknown citizen supposedly claimed they had found a holster around the same area. In both cases, they supposedly gave these items to the police. Again, there were no witnesses around to corroborate any of this, nor was there any legal representation for Francis at the time. (His first chance to talk to a lawyer didn’t come until a month after he was imprisoned, just six days before his trial.)
So again, the evidence against Francis is very questionable. However, the really odd thing was that throughout the period de Blanc and the NAACP were fighting for Francis’ life, he never took back his confession and seemed to maintain that he had killed Thomas, though never giving any reason why and denying the reasons stated in court. The one and only instance he seems to have stated he didn’t do it, you’ll see in the picture above, where he wrote on his jail cell wall “of course I am not a killer.” It has been speculated that he might have been protecting his family by keeping his mouth shut.
Whatever the case, just before he died, Francis sent a letter to the Shreveport Sun saying his goodbyes to those who had supported him and finishing with,
To every one, my best farewell wishes I send, And may none reach my dreadful end.
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- While Willie Francis was the first known person to fail to be killed after a government sanctioned killing by electrocution, the first already dead man to be “executed” via the electric chair was Fred Van Wormer. Wormer was executed in 1903 via the electric chair. After being pronounced dead, his body was removed to the morgue where it was discovered he was still alive. Thus, they returned him to the electric chair. However, on the way back to the chair, he died. Despite this, they strapped him back in the chair and fried him again, just in case.
- A potential motive for why Francis may have killed Thomas was proposed after his death, expounding upon his statement of “it was a secret between him and I”. This, however, was not based on any direct evidence and rather is just based on hearsay. Stella Vincent was a former employee of Thomas. Her sister, Edith, stated that Stella had told her on her deathbed why she had left the employ of Thomas so abruptly so many years before. She supposedly told Edith that she had walked in on Thomas and Francis in a back room and “had witnessed something at the drugstore that had so disturbed her she could not bear to return” and soon after moved to Florida. Specifically she supposedly stated she had witnessed “an incident” (apparently sexual in nature) between Thomas and Francis. After a while, she heard Thomas “yelling and lashing out at the boy”. So it has been suggested perhaps this “incident” motivated the murder. Others have speculated from this that perhaps Francis had reported the incident to the deputy, who then gave him his gun and helped him murder Thomas, after getting a promise from him that if he was ever caught, he wouldn’t mention the deputy’s involvement. However, during his time in prison, Francis repeatedly said that he had liked Thomas and never for an instant acted as if he bore him an ill will. He described Thomas as a “pretty good boss”, a “swell guy”, a “a very fine fellow”, and stated that he “didn’t have a grudge against him (Thomas) nor was [I] after money.”
- As to the lifetime bachelor Andrew Thomas supposedly being quite the ladies’ man around town, causing the deputy to suspect Thomas was messing around with his wife, two of the married ladies Thomas frequently visited, Bea Nassan and Henrietta Duplantis, had a different view. They claimed that Thomas was gay and had no interest in women other than that he enjoyed their company. He further supposedly enjoyed showing them how to use various beauty products he sold at his shop, which partially explained his visits. However, this is solely based on the word of these two ladies who had their lives “ruined” by the media publishing that Thomas frequently spent time at their houses while their husbands were away. So it’s possible they could have made this story up as a cover for their affairs, which would have been all the more scandalous in that period. Or, it’s possible they were telling the truth, which would have explained Thomas’ bachelordom in that day and age and would have been particularly tragic if he’d actually been killed by an angry husband, such as the deputy.
- William Kemmler was the first ever human to be executed via the electric chair all the way back in 1890. During this execution, they first started by electrocuting Kemmler for 17 seconds, then when they found his heart was still beating and he was still breathing, they fried him again after the generator had recharged. In the end, it took eight minutes to kill him from first shocking to death. While it was a pretty gruesome affair causing one spectator to note that “they would have done better using an axe” and another stating it was “far worse than hanging”, it should be noted that Kemmler was seemingly rendered unconscious at the beginning and never regained consciousness throughout the ordeal. So, errr, that’s something I guess. Kemmler’s crime was murdering his wife with a hatchet. He almost got out of such a fate, until Thomas Edison made his now famous arguments that the electric chair, which had been invented in his industrial laboratory, was a painless method of execution, which helped sway the court on the matter.
- Martha Place was the first woman to be executed via the electric chair in 1899. Her crime was murdering in an incredibly gruesome fashion her stepdaughter Ida Place. On February 7, 1898, her husband came home to find his wife brandishing an axe and attempting to murder him with it (who hasn’t had that happen at least once when they came home from work? ). William Place escaped and ran for the police. When they got back to his house, they found Martha Place attempting to kill herself via breathing gas from their burners (she was lying on the kitchen floor unconscious at the time with the gas leaking into the room). They turned off the gas and searched the home for William’s 17 year old daughter, finding her dead after having had acid thrown in her eyes and on her face and apparently having died from asphyxiation.
- Although Place was the first woman to be executed in the electric chair, a different woman was the first to be sentenced to such a fate, but upon appeal was released, Maria Barbella. Barbella’s is an interesting case because she admitted to her crime of slitting Domenico Cataldo’s throat. However, the jury was extremely sympathetic with her plight. Cataldo was courting Place when he eventually took her to a boarding house and supposedly drugged her drink in order to get her to have sex with him (although we only have Barbella’s word on this, after she murdered Cataldo). Whether it was consensual or not, Barbella then attempted to get Cataldo to marry her. Cataldo initially refused citing the fact that he would soon be returning to Italy. He later agreed that he would marry her, so long as he was paid $200. Rather than pay him, Barbella killed him by slicing his throat with a razor. Because of public sympathy, and the fact that she couldn’t speak English (which hindered her ability to testify for herself during the trial, though she did confess to the murder in Italian), she was granted a second trial where she was deemed “mentally ill”. During her second trial, she was also found innocent and released. She soon married and had a son, only to have her husband, apparently the bravest man in the world, leave her and return to Italy as Cataldo had promised to do, resulting in Barbella slitting his throat.
- Lethal injection tends to be the execution method of choice in the United States these days, but in certain states, the condemned are allowed to choose between the electric chair and lethal injection. The most recent person to choose the chair was Paul Warner Powell, who was executed in 2010.
- Three years after Francis’ died sitting on Gruesome Gertie, the Supreme Court reversed a murder conviction where the primary evidence was simply that the 15 year old had confessed to the murder after five hourse of interrogation, during which the boy was alone with the police. The Supreme Court’s ruling was based on that, “[W]e cannot believe that a lad of tender years is a match for the police in such a contest. He needs counsel and support if he is not to become the victim first of fear, then of panic. He needs someone on whom to lean lest the overpowering presence of the law, as he knows it, crush him.” So it would appear that had de Blanc got to take that argument up to the Supreme Court, Francis might have gotten off.
- While being escorted to the first execution attempt, Francis said that the deputy told him “Don’t worry, Willie, it won’t hurt you very much. You won’t even feel it!” Francis said he thought, “I wasn’t worried at all whether it would hurt me. I was more worried about the fact that it was going to kill me.”
- As a counter argument to de Blanc’s argument that it was cruel to make a man go through the electric chair experience twice, Captain Foster stated that Francis hadn’t suffered any physical harm because “There was a shortage—a little wire was loose and the current went back into the ground instead of going into the nigger.” However, Dr. Youngue, the coroner overseeing the execution, stated that Francis had jerked around so violently when they flipped the switch that despite being strapped securely to the chair, he moved the 300 pound chair several times while the electricity was flowing.
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