Feature: Willie Francis Must Die Again
I was having a heated discussion with a friend the other day as to whether being electrocuted always meant death. My friend said yes, but I said I wasn’tsure.
To settle the matter I asked Debby Denno, the Arthur A. McGivney Professor of Law at Fordham University School of Law in New York. Prof. Denno is an international authority in many areas of criminal law, including the death penalty.
She said one can indeed be electrocuted without actually dying. She went on to tell me there was a 1946 case in which an inmate survived a formal electrocution presumably because he did not receive sufficient circuitry. His name was Willie Francis and he was successfully executed by electrocution a year later.
Willie Francis was the first recipient of a failed execution by electrocution in the US. He was an African American youth with no prior record sentenced to death in Louisiana in 1945 at the age of 16 for murdering his former boss Andrew Thomas, who owned a drug store.
His trial had been brief and a guilty verdict was never in doubt. His appointed lawyers called no witnesses, presented no evidence and had not filed a single appeal once he was sentenced to die by electrocution.
On May 3, 1946, the he portable electric chair known as "Gruesome Gertie" failed to kill 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.
It turned out the chair had been improperly set up by a drunk prison guard and inmate from the local prison.
Police officials made derogatory statements to Francis and promptly threw him back in a cell.
The sheriff called for the chair to be fixed and a new execution six days later. In the meantime, a lawyer named Bertrand DeBlanc obtained a stay of execution for Francis, saying it was double jeopardy and cruel and unusual punishment.
The case went to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately the majority voted for the execution and on May 9, 1947, Francis was sent to Gruesome Gertie once again. This time, it worked.
Years after Francis was executed, speculation arose about the sexuality of the murder victim. Francis had told police, "It was about me and him," giving reason to believe that he was sexually abused by Thomas.
Francis was the subject of a 2006 documentary film titled ‘Willie Francis Must Die Again’, written and directed by film maker Allan Durand and narrated by actor Danny Glover.*