Willie Francis is not unique in American criminal history. Tragically, many convicted criminals have had to endure botched executions, often experiencing unspeakable pain before finally dying. However, Francis’ case has nevertheless gone down in history and continues to be the subject of much research and speculation. Moreover, for decades it has been used as an argument against ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments and the role of capital punishment in American society.
Francis was born in the State of Louisiana in January 1929. Not much is known about his childhood, which is hardly surprising for a poor, boy of color living in the South at the time. What is known is that, in 1945, he was detained by police in Texas after being found close to the scene of a crime. Upon searching him, the police claim they found a wallet belonging to Andrew Thomas, a pharmacist from St. Martinville, Louisiana, who had been shot and killed nine months previously.
At first, Francis denied having any knowledge of the murder. Then, he named several other people as the perpetrators. Finally, after much interrogation, he confessed to the crime. Mysteriously, he noted “It was a secret about me and him”, with reference to Thomas. At no point did Francis have an attorney present with him. What’s more, not only did he retract his confession, new evidence pointed to a local policeman as being the culprit. All of this was ignored.
Francis was brought to court, where he pleaded not guilty. Without any defense to call upon, an all-white jury convicted him of murder. Even though he was under 15 at the time of the crime, Francis was sentenced to death. The execution was scheduled for May 3, 1946 at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Francis was strapped to the electric chair and the switch was flicked. A surge of electricity ran through his body. But, instead of dying, Francis was screaming out loud. It turned out that a drunken prison guard had failed to set the chair up properly.
Citing the agony that the botched attempt had caused Francis, a young, white lawyer – who had even been friends with the murder victim – took up his case. He argued that the electric chair constituted “cruel and unusual punishment”. After deliberating, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal. Francis was taken back to the execution almost exactly a year to the day of the first attempt. This time, it was successful. While he may have been spared the horror of a failed electrocution for a second time, some people still maintain that Francis was innocent all along. Or that, even if he did kill Thomas, it was because the pharmacist had been abusing him as a boy. As that confession note mysteriously said, the crime was “a secret about me and him”.